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Author Topic: [Dirty Secrets] A few days ago in Chicago ...  (Read 2400 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: June 04, 2009, 09:18:06 AM »

Hello,

I'd given the book a good read yet again, this time with an eye toward what I wanted to tell people just prior to play. What I decided to make absolutely clear was the difference between an Investigation scene and a Revelation scene. The former (i) includes the possibility of conflict which itself includes the possibility of violent harm to anyone involved; (ii) cannot actually reveal anything, only what people say and they may well be lying or mistaken; (iii) ends the current chapter, and (iv) adds suspects to the mechanics of how the culprit is identified later. The latter (i) does not include conflict; (ii) establishes rock-solid information; (iii) can lead into any other kind of scene to continue the current chapter.

In other words, I wanted everyone to know that "investigating" does not uncover the truth, but rather stirs things up. It does bring the story further to a close, but if you were to investigate all the time, the crime would be "solved" not by you figuring it out via fact-by-fact accumulation, but simply by causing so much trouble, and so much intentional or inadvertent harm, that the whole thing blows up. You can do that, sure, but I think a number of people I've seen playing the game go into it thinking "investigating" is like an Investigate skill roll in Call of Cthulhu. The key lesson is that if you want your investigator actually to figure anything out for sure in-story (i.e. be 'smart'), then do Revelation scenes too.

So it was me, Tim K, and Chris, and our game was set in Chicago last week, or rather two weeks ago at the time of this writing. Chris played the Investigator. In the interests of time, we did a short story, and part of our beginning dialogue concerned how short stories rely less on developing nuances and more on one-two punches in terms of plot and theme. Our starting lineup (heh) looked like this:

Investigator: Isabel, a middle-class latina woman in her late 30s, a federal agent (Homeland Security)
The victim: Maya, a middle-class Native American woman in her early 40s, a police officer; Isabel's connection to her is that they are closeted lovers
The crime: Theft, specifically some sensitive security documentation
A suspect: Amir, a young, poor, middle-eastern guy

Plus the other crime, which turned out to be Murder (and nothing else; this one hasn't happened yet), and two more blank character cards

The ins and outs of a Dirty Secrets story are hard to report in written form, even for a short story. Basically, it turned out that Maya had stolen the secrets herself and tried to frame Amir, then killed him and tried to kill Isabel when she got too close, and prompted another corrupt cop to try to sell those secrets himself. Here are some of the separate threads, but you should understand that what happened in one typically greatly affected what happened in another.

1. The relationship between Isabel and Maya started out badly, or rather, where we began in the story, it was already pretty dysfunctional. Tim and Chris played the women's first dialogue so shrill and angry that I wondered why they didn't just break up.* As the story went on, Maya didn't show up much for a while, I mean except for trying to kill Isabel with a car bomb, and most of the attention was on Isabel's reflection on what this relationship really meant to her.** Maya skipped town in the middle of the story. Ultimately, it ended with a profound confirmation that "love stinks," and that people love one another primarily as a means of being lonely together.*** We never really found out why Maya was so emotionally broken, but the portrait was intensely clear. A certain number of stereotypes regarding Native Americans were raised involving drinking and gambling, and as I saw it, the story did not confirm those stereotypes but showed how Maya had internalized them to the extent that they destroyed her. (Chris had filled out the story grid with nearly all Maya toward the end.)

2. The middle eastern component was followed through by having Amir involved with some kind of fencing operation at a butcher shop.**** This also led to a confrontation with Murphy (see below), and implicated a rich guy named Al-Sharifi who was definitely on the Homeland Security watchlist.***** Al-Sharifi turned out not to be guilty of either the theft or murder, and I rather liked the way I played him, interpretable either as terrifying domestic terrorist kingpin or basically a rich guy who disagreed profoundly with U.S. policy and took steps to keep himself informed on Homeland Security's actions out of self-protection (Chris added him to the crime grid only once). Poor Amir was blown up by a car bomb (or his body was; he was already dead) which Isabel narrowly escaped. He didn't get added to the story grid at all.

3. The cops did not come out well in this story. Not only was Maya totally into gambling, but we also met the contemptible Murphy, who worked sometimes for Al-Sharifi until he got greedy. Chris put him onto the story grid at least once, as I remember. He was jailed about two-thirds of the way through the story, and since he turned out not to be guilty of those particular crimes, he retroactively became a supporting character who pretty much went to rot in prison for all the other shitty stuff he did in the story. The Homeland Security guys were equally nasty. When Isabel was outed at work, a couple of them came after her to "teach her a lesson," and were only interrupted by the arrival of a Gay Patriots parade.****** Despite the mild humor of the outcome, the scene was actually very unpleasant. There were no good white guys in our story.

So, Maya became, or was revealed to be, the perpetrator for both crimes: she had stolen the documents to try to fence to Al-Sharifi, had tried to blame it on Amir and then covered up by killing Amir and trying to kill Isabel, inadvertently prompted Murphy to go rogue, and inadvertently outed Isabel. Al-Sharifi was not guilty of any of it (although the story grid held it open as a possibility until the last minute). Murphy was jailed.

Thematically, we skated close to stereotyping about neurotic murderous lesbians. I think we did a nice job of turning the story into an indictment of homophobia, partly by displaying how at least one person internalized it, and partly how pain experienced by one minority can get displaced onto another.

We enjoyed the rules immensely and I think all the various chapter definitions were chosen fairly (and up-ended by the Authority fairly when that happened). The single Reflection scene was great, one of those moments when all three people at the table were emotionally tightly in the same space. As a minor rules comment, I liked the way you can choose to have it go either way: solve the crimes in the order they were committed, or bracket the second with the first. I think Chris chose to go the second way, so that it wasn't like the theft blew up into the murder, it was more like the murder was a subroutine of the theft (which makes Maya rather more horrifying than less, actually).

I wouldn't mind some reminders about the final scene in the run-down bar in Gary. The cops were eventually involved. I remember the conflict definitely involved the verbal "blow to the heart" between the women. Tim, do you remember how it played out?

Now for questions about the rules.

1. Here's our biggest rules issue: Violence, whether embedded in Conflict scene or in outright Violence scenes. We couldn't hurt anyone to save our lives. Isabel was scratched once or twice, and that's all. This just doesn't jibe with what I've seen in Dirty Secrets play at (for instance) nearby tables at cons, or read about on-line. Seth, can you explain how this is done?

2. Another thing confused me during play, but we were unfamiliar enough with the system to keep me from spotting it as a possible mis-play until I thought about it later. I was the Authority, and Chris and I were running a conflict within an Investigation scene. It was my first one, actually. I rolled five 4's. Chris called it at exactly that value. But we played it as if he'd won, i.e., "guess right." Now that I think about it, I'd actually won, hadn't I? Because if he calls, it's because he says I'm lying, not that I'm telling the truth? (There's even a near-identical example in the book.)

This is potentially very important because if I'd won, it would have stripped Chris of dice and his general dominance over conflicts would not have prevailed throughout the game as it did.

3. Somewhat frustrated by the lack of bloodshed, even given the car bomb, I decided to bring in the second Crime which was already designated a Murder. So if I understand correctly, we could take an "unlawful act" and assign this Crime to it. The question is whether I was correct to take the unlawful act (the car bomb) and turn it into a formal Murder even though it hadn't killed anyone by the rules. Basically I assassinated poor Amir by calling the car bomb a crime, and narrationally, it was revealed later that his body had been in the trunk. Did I illegitimately escalate the unlawful act into more than it was allowed to be? Or should I have had to wait until someone was killed via Violence to make it the second Crime?

I been looking forward to playing this game, but I was always not surprised that the first time was a bit excessive. I'm looking forward to doing it again with a little more totally down-to-the-ground content.

Best, Ron

* This occurred at a B&B in Chicago; there are lots of these, where people take "staycations." Isabel lived on Rockwell just west of Andersonville; I think we also established where Maya lived but I don't remember.
** At a famous lesbian bar downtown; I don't recall the name.
*** At a grim gambling joint approximately in Gary or the sprawl of no-name towns around Lake Michigan's southern shore.
**** On Devon Street, of course.
***** Al-Sharifi lived the same block Rod Blagojevich lives on, W Sunnyside between Montrose and Wilson.
****** This occurred near the Homeland Security office in downtown Chicago, on a main street often used for parades
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Chris W
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« Reply #1 on: June 04, 2009, 10:45:51 AM »

Small point of clarification here, Ron, but the weird moment with calling the dice came down to a violence roll, which - as there was no dice loss involved - seemed to my advantage to call you as lying when I thought you were spot on because, as we understood it, it's the variance between actual dice and the lie that determines how much violence takes place.

Sop, I think the real question is... is there a caveat for the spot-on call we didn't know about that makes it a disadvantage to be "wrong" about calling a lie?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: June 04, 2009, 11:27:53 AM »

Oh, I see, or think I do - in a Violence scene, there's no real "who wins" involved. And yes! I checked the rules and in Violence scenes, neither player loses dice. I remember finding that out during play, now.

Best, Ron
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jburneko
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« Reply #3 on: June 04, 2009, 11:45:05 AM »

Hey Ron.

Yeah the Violence thing seems a little weak until you figure out the trick.  It took me a few plays to notice this.  Seth should probably spell this tactic out in the text if he ever does a revision.  The technique is different depending on which whether you're doing an Investigation scene or a Violence scene.

To Increase Violence in an Investigation scene.

Use the Re-Roll rules.  Look at the public Violence die.  Pull out any dice you've rolled that match it and pull out your own Violence die which by the rules you have to change to match the public Violence die.  Bam, two points of violence are now in play.  Now to make it happen you just keep bidding that number, pulling out dice that come up that number and re-rolling the rest.  This tactic generally makes the Investigator's life a living hell.

To Increase Violence in a Violence scene.

You can try doing the same thing as above and as the Authority you have an advantage because you set the die and it can't change in a Violence scene.  Or you can play to lose really big.  Yeah, it gives the assignment of Violence to the investigator but it all has to go somewhere!

Jesse
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: June 05, 2009, 01:39:17 AM »

I found the Story Grid we were using, and it turns out my memory was a bit off. Murphy never made it onto the sheet, so he was a bit player through and through. Amir did get written on one square, and as I said before, Al-Sharifi had one square too. The rest, aside from a couple of blanks left, was all Maya.

Best, Ron
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #5 on: June 05, 2009, 04:49:51 AM »

Hey, Ron.

First, thanks for playing the game! Glad to hear that it went well.

Your insights on Investigation vs. Revelation are helpful. Iíve been corresponding with Ryan Macklin about Investigation sequences, because he stumbles over the terminology, largely for the reasons that youíre discussing. Iíve been debating if thereís a better term to have used, though, frankly, nothing comes to mind.

Your point about using Revelation to establish the investigator as being competent hadnít actually occurred to me. In my own experience, we often use Revelations as those weird lucky flukes where the investigator just stumbles onto some important information. Pretty much the opposite of what youíre talking about, actually. Though, the rule was originally developed to allow for things like file crawls and the like to be brought into play. You know, information dumps that are necessary but boring to play through.

Quote
In the interests of time, we did a short story, and part of our beginning dialogue concerned how short stories rely less on developing nuances and more on one-two punches in terms of plot and theme.

Well put. This is probably why I prefer the Novella or Novel lengths for the game, because it allows more time for those nuances, which I love about the genre.

Iíve also found that running a Short Story length game can be tricky for a group new to the game, since you have to jump more quickly into interconnecting details and the like. Was this an issue for your group? Did your pre-game discussion help smooth over this difficulty?

Quote
The ins and outs of a Dirty Secrets story are hard to report in written form, even for a short story.

Itís so true! I have a hard time writing Dirty Secrets actual play reports as a result.

Also, how did it feel to play in Chicago? Did that affect the game experience for you? Or was it essentially ďgeneric cityĒ setting with Chicago flavor?

Personally, Iíve found that playing in Peoria results in a weird resonant connection with the fiction. While playing the game, my group can refer to all sorts of geography around town as something of a narrative shorthand. Then, when driving around town, I see these different places and am reminded of the story that we set at that location. Also, I find myself mentally collecting local places of interest so that I have a library of interesting places for my next game of Dirty Secrets. This has actually had a profound impact on my life, as Iíve found myself paying more conscious attention to the place where I live.

Now, to your rules questions.

Quote
1. Here's our biggest rules issue: Violence, whether embedded in Conflict scene or in outright Violence scenes. We couldn't hurt anyone to save our lives. Isabel was scratched once or twice, and that's all. This just doesn't jibe with what I've seen in Dirty Secrets play at (for instance) nearby tables at cons, or read about on-line. Seth, can you explain how this is done?

Jesseís explanations are pretty good on how to manipulate the mechanics. You donít even necessariy have to reveal your Violence die, if it happens to match the public Violence die. Just keep bidding on the matching number. This is what happened in the real world occasion that inspired the example on page 96.

Occasionally, you can use this feature to manipulate the outcome of conflicts, simply by threatening Violence in a scene where your opponent is desperate to avoid it.

Basically, you need to choose which is more important to you: controlling the outcome, or dictating the Violence. This isnít a thematic decision, mind you, and itís possible to accomplish both. However, generally speaking, youíll have to decide that one is more important than the other.

Quote
2. Another thing confused me during play, but we were unfamiliar enough with the system to keep me from spotting it as a possible mis-play until I thought about it later. I was the Authority, and Chris and I were running a conflict within an Investigation scene. It was my first one, actually. I rolled five 4's. Chris called it at exactly that value. But we played it as if he'd won, i.e., "guess right." Now that I think about it, I'd actually won, hadn't I? Because if he calls, it's because he says I'm lying, not that I'm telling the truth? (There's even a near-identical example in the book.)

This is potentially very important because if I'd won, it would have stripped Chris of dice and his general dominance over conflicts would not have prevailed throughout the game as it did.

Chris is correct that no dice are lost during a Violence sequence. Had it been an Investigation sequence, then you would be correct. You would have won and Chris would have lost all his dice, forcing a Reflection sequence. Since it was a Violence sequence, then the outcome is simply zero Violence. (See page 54) A weird outcome, to be sure, but it can happen.

Quote
3. Somewhat frustrated by the lack of bloodshed, even given the car bomb, I decided to bring in the second Crime which was already designated a Murder. So if I understand correctly, we could take an "unlawful act" and assign this Crime to it. The question is whether I was correct to take the unlawful act (the car bomb) and turn it into a formal Murder even though it hadn't killed anyone by the rules. Basically I assassinated poor Amir by calling the car bomb a crime, and narrationally, it was revealed later that his body had been in the trunk. Did I illegitimately escalate the unlawful act into more than it was allowed to be? Or should I have had to wait until someone was killed via Violence to make it the second Crime?

This is all completely by the book; your actions were totally legit. Violence only matters within a conflict. Outside conflict, you can narrate whatever you want (subject to Jurisdiction and Appeal, of course).

Really, you shouldnít look at Violence as being the rules-sanctioned way to hurt and kill people. Actually, Violence is a creative constraint placed on conflict outcomes. Itís supposed to serve as something of a game-created Bang. By definition, Violence is the result of a choice by one of the Characters. So, each time Violence is introduced, the game has just said, ďOne of these available Characters made a choice that resulted in harm to someone else. What was that choice?Ē And, hovering behind that question, is another: ďWhy did the Character do that?Ē These sorts of questions help lead the players through the game.

Another question for you. You mention that Chris dominated the conflicts. Was he better at the Liarís Dice minigame? Does this mean that he controlled the Crime Grid?

Again, thanks for playing!
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #6 on: June 05, 2009, 06:02:42 AM »

Ron:

My memory is a bit fuzzy.  I wasn't exactly at my creative peak that night after a long day at work and a couple beers.

From what I can remember, the final scene took place at an Indian run casino outside of Chicago.  Maya was essentially desperate.  She was gambling away all of her money at the roulette table, trying find some comfort.  Isabel showed up and the two had it out.  I too am having trouble remembering how the the dialogue went exactly.  It certainly involved feelings of intense betrayal.  The action came to a head when Isabel pulled a gun.  Maya made it clear that she wasn't going to give herself up.  The last image I have in my head is Maya floating face-down in the lake behind the casino.  But I'm racking my brain trying to remember how she ended up dead.  Did Isabel (or the cops) shoot her, or was it a suicide?

Seth:

The violence scenes were a bit weird for me.  The fact that Ron kept calling for violence scenes where no violence occurred felt unsatisfying.  Then again, Chris was actively angling to avoid violence.  As Ron said, Chris was anticipating as best he could how to keep the difference between the bid and the dice at zero.  I think with a better grasp of Liar's Dice, Ron could have forced at least one point of violence.  As it was, Chris's better understanding of the mini-game definitely helped him guide the story towards his preferences.

Another interesting way that Liar's Dice shaped our game came when I lost my entire dice pool very early in the game.  This neutered me as the Authority during investigation scenes.  In addition, Chris had no incentive to call for revelation scenes because he never seemed to lose any dice.  (For those of you who don't remember, all of the players replenish their dice pool after a revelation scene.)  With some hesitation -- because he knew I would get all of my dice back -- Chris did ask for the single revelation scene the Ron described.  But for a good chunk of the game, Chris was quite dominate.
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #7 on: June 05, 2009, 06:07:27 AM »

Another question for you. You mention that Chris dominated the conflicts. Was he better at the Liarís Dice minigame? Does this mean that he controlled the Crime Grid?

What do you mean "controlled the Crime Grid"?  I thought the investigator is the only one who can add to the crime grid regardless of the dice?  Is that wrong?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: June 05, 2009, 06:26:14 AM »

Hi Seth,

I remember the end better now, with that prompting. Maya did end up dead in the stinky water of southern Lake Michigan, but if Iím not mistaken, Isabel did not shoot her and I think Maya shot herself rather than be taken by the cops.

Regarding the Investigation term, I donít think thereís any reason to change the term itself. I do think that when introducing the game to others, Iím going to make that the first and most up-front point, just as I did this time. I also told them about which scenes end chapters and which scenes (or specific outcomes, like losing dice) require specific following scenes. The downloaded help-sheets did help, but I think that verbal description is a required introduction to understanding what they say.

Regarding the content of Revelations, the way I see it is not what that particular kind of scene is for, but what Investigation isnít for. The Revelation itself could be luck, technical research, an insight based on a clue, an insight based on reflection, or who knows what. The point to me is that Investigation isnít any of these things, specifically because its content (totally) lacks the certainty of the Revelation.

I was thinking that The Big Lebowski is a fine example of an Investigation-only story. The Dude indeed figures out whatís really going on, but that corresponds in Dirty Secrets terms to the actual revealing of the Crime, not the result of a specific investigation or even a revelation in a pre-climax scene.

Therefore if a player wants his or her Investigator to be demonstrated as a competent finder-outer, and I suggest that this is such a common thing in role-playing as to be practically axiomatic in many peopleís minds, then Revelation will serve (as opposed to being always for) that purpose. I also suggest that people who arenít habitual role-players may not have this issue.

Regarding the short-story form, we had no difficulties. Our pre-game discussion merely touched on something we all already knew and probably didnít need even to mention, once the term ďshort storyĒ had been stated. Besides, this is a group familiar with Spione, carry, Sweet Agatha (for two of us), Dead of Night, and many other games in which picking up extant material and making it into interconnecting details is a primary activity.

Regarding playing in Chicago (or rather, in the local-now setting), youíre singiní a song I learned a long time ago. I started doing this back in 1985, with Champions, following the example of the earliest Marvel comics from two decades before that. All the virtues of doing so Ė and I think they are distinctive and many Ė became clear to me over the next eight years or so of playing that game, and confirmed every so often since. The difference between doing this and what people call ďmodern-day settingĒ is tremendous, but strangely itís hard to find in role-playing texts. Thereís a game called Heroic Do-Gooders and Dastardly Deed-Doers whose text expresses precisely why better than I can, and I think itís the only example.

I should clarify to you that in our Violence scenes, neither Tim nor I was especially invested in dumping the violence directly onto the Investigator so much as adding violence to the story itself in some way. OK, maybe Tim was after Chris a little at one point, but mainly not.

The one Violence scene Tim references is the one in which I rolled five 4ís. What I didnít understand at the time was that harm done was based on the difference between the bid and the reality when it was called, so I was oriented toward ďwinningĒ the match and called five 4ís. Which I did win, when Chris called it Ö but I thought that was going to give me 5 harm done, and was disappointed to learn it was 0. So the issue wasnít the Liarís Dice but my understanding of the rules. If Iíd understood them better, I would have bid low 4ís and kept returning to 4ís at higher numbers if Chris had escalated.

You may be interested to know that in every violence-including scene, which Investigation or Violence, the most done was one weensy level.

Minor correction to Timís post: he means Reflection, not Revelation.

Chris won the Liarís Dice procedure a lot, although not every single time. He never lost dice or if he did, very few. I donít know whether that means he was better at it than us, but I also know that I learn such procedures slowly, over many experiences. As for ďcontrollingĒ the grid, Iím not sure. I think he wrote in all the names, or almost all of them, if thatís what you mean. Which I thought was perfectly all right, as every name he wrote in made a lot of sense to me based on what was going on. None of us enjoy competing for ďstory control,Ē so such mechanisms operate for us in an, ďoh boy, whoís he going to addĒ fun way.

Best, Ron
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #9 on: June 05, 2009, 06:47:06 AM »

What do you mean "controlled the Crime Grid"?  I thought the investigator is the only one who can add to the crime grid regardless of the dice?  Is that wrong?

Whoever finally won the conflict (after Pushes and the like) gets to add the name and move the Witness.
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: June 05, 2009, 06:58:44 AM »

Yeah, I think I wrote in the Al-Sharifi entry because I won that conflict. It's interesting too, because as audience I didn't want him to be guilty, but as author I wanted him under genuine suspicion, and as shared-author, I knew that entailed the risk of him actually being guilty.

Best, Ron
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #11 on: June 05, 2009, 07:25:16 AM »

Ron:

No arguments from me.

Except that I think there is one moment of Revelation in the Big Lebowski -- in the post sex scene with Maude when the Dude figures out that the crippled Lebowski kept the money for himself.  It's almost irrelevant at that point in the story, but let's give the Dude at least a little bit of credit.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: June 05, 2009, 07:49:30 AM »

True.

Must not geek out about this movie! Must not geek out about this movie! Must ...

Oh hell. OK, the whole ferret in the tub scene? Violence with no harm done. The Dude at the bowling alley bar with the Stranger? Reflection. The interview with Jackie Treehorn? Totally Investigation.

""I'll just go find an ATM!"

Best, Ron
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #13 on: June 05, 2009, 02:39:10 PM »

Okay, so a confession.

I've never seen The Big Lebowski. I've seen other Coen Brothers movies, including Fargo and No Country For Old Men, but not The Big Lebowski.

Speaking professionally here, as one who wants to be conversant with this genre...should I?
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown
jburneko
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« Reply #14 on: June 05, 2009, 03:07:27 PM »

Speaking professionally here, as one who wants to be conversant with this genre...should I?

Yes.

Or rather, let me tell you the experience I had the first time I saw it.  For context, realize that I saw this before encountering The Forge.  Before my thinking about story was completely revolutionized by Ron's Egri influenced ideas.  It was even before I got heavily back into role-playing as a hobby at all.

So I'm sitting in the theater and I'm really enjoying this crazy zany film.  And then all of a sudden there comes this moment where a realization hits me.  My brain suddenly lights up and goes, "Holy God!  This is a detective movie!"  And suddenly the film took on this awesome mystic.

Jesse
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