Friday, March 14, 2014

RPG Review: The Big Crime

This post isn't a first impressions review of the new Spectrum Games RPG The Big Crime.

A few disclaimers. The first is that while I've never met one of the authors, Cynthia Celeste Miller, she is someone who I've corresponded with a lot on Facebook and I admire a great deal. Moreover, our interests are pretty close together - 80's cartoons, comic books (especially of the Silver and Bronze ages), etc.

The second disclaimer is more administrative just in case I never get around to a more full review reflecting actual play or additional details (I have some Delta Green reviews I'm meaning to do as well). Life of late has been more intense than usual. My wife's school closed down at the end of last October and being a person who has anxiety problems in the best of times, the last few months have been rough. The past week or two has seen an improvement - I've been paying more attention to my own mental health and my wife has secured a long-term sub position that starts next week which has been preceded by being a daily sub for that school. Plus she's been working part-time as a tutor. Meaning money has gotten a bit less tight but time has gotten awfully crazy.

Anyways, let's talk about The Big Crime. It is an RPG dedicated to mimicking the film noir genre. Films of the 1940s and 1950s. I can't say what the book is physically like as I only have the PDF. It's a book of 183 pages with a fairly small page size and a largish font. It looks nice - not so large that you think they're trying to increase the page count but keeps this dude's aging eyes from straining. The background is a rather appropriate gray and it is heavily illustrated with some very appropriate public domain images of the city, criminals, detectives, etc. The size of the book makes it work nicely with smaller sized tablets like my 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. My only real annoyance with the presentation is its lack of bookmarks - as someone who has become increasingly digital over the past several years, I really prefer PDF files that are well-bookmarked. Makes "flipping" through the book much easier.

The book begins with a discussion about what film noir is. This is probably more needed here than it is in other genres as it is a term that gets thrown around a lot. There's a quote about characters that I really that I think sums up rather well who you'll be playing:
For the most part, the characters in film noir were normal, everyday people just like you and me. They weren’t action heroes in the modern sense, nor were they always individuals that could easily be labeled as “good guys” or “bad guys”. Those concepts were relatively rare in film noir. No, the characters found here were normal folks, albeit normal folks with a turbulent future ahead and, just as likely, a turbulent past as well. In most cases, they were flawed (sometimes cripplingly so) and morally questionable. The characters had gambling problems, alcohol addictions, abusive tendencies, hateful demeanors, or a weakness for dishy dames with long gams.
There's also a list of eight essential film noir examples, with an eye towards making them useful for gamers. They are:

  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • The Big Sleep (1946) - one of my favorite films!
  • Raw Deal (1948)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • Born to Kill (1947)
  • Out of the Past (1947)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
The game system is designed to closely emulate the genre. There's deliberately no rules for advancement which may be a sticking point for some, though examples of film noir tend not to have sequels and even if someone like Philip Marlowe appears in multiple films there is no attempt at continuity between them. Like many RPGs, adventures are intended to be broken into three acts though unlike most RPGs the rules ratchet up the level of danger from one act to the next.

Characters have several types of traits:
  • Shade - How deep a shade of grey is your character
  • Abilities - Normal RPG stuff like Body, Finesse, Smarts, and Spirit. Three ratings - Poor, Normal, and Good.
  • Aspects - Skills for the most part. Each is attached to a specific Ability and is binary - you have it or you don't.
  • Temptation Tracks - Measures how corrupted you are in Guilt, Desperation, and Alienation.
  • Hooks - Three things that make you unique. Can be physical traits (in a wheelchair), related to your background (war veteran), goals, personality, or psychological problems. You get rewarded in Genre Points for playing these out.
  • Genre Points - A sort of hero point tool for the game.

When acting you roll a variable number of d6, d8, or d10. Poor gets d10, Normal gets d8, Good gets d6. By default you roll four dice, though Aspects, Temptation, and other circumstances can add or subtract from the dice you roll. You are trying to get as many matching sets as you can. 

The game supports different kinds of scenes with its rules:
  • Drama Scenes - Verbal interaction, with a goal of trying to get your opponent to collect four setback tokens. Nice to see verbal sparring given as much attention as physical. Bogey is a master of this.
  • Fight Scenes - Whipping out he guns and fists, again trying to give your opponent setback tokens.
  • Chase Scenes - Just what it says on the tin.
To improve your odds in the short-term you can give in to various temptations - but doing so requires acts of betrayal, dirty tricks, immoral actions. 

Genre and Director points allow the PCs and Director (the GM) to modify the game. As the game goes into different acts the Director gets more points. In Act Two PCs become vulnerable to death (and Act Three may prove a bloodbath - after all the protagonist does not always win in film noir). There's rules for replacing PCs in a hurry should you lose one before the climax.

Next up are rules for character creation. Your characters Shade plays into how much (if any) temptation you start with, you've got various rules for tweaking your characters, and Special Rules - a lot like stunts in Fate RPG - where your background gives you various rule-altering abilities.

After this we've got guidance for PCs and Directors - probably more useful here than in many other games as it discusses various genre conventions and how best to inject them into the game. The Director guidance includes advice on both creating the mood (camera tricks, sets, characters) and on how to build your own films (adventures). 

Finally we've got "Search by Night", an example film ready to play. Speaking of examples, one thing we've got in this whole book that I really like is lots of examples after a rule is introduced. 

Impressions? This looks like a fun game to play. It is strongly dedicated to emulating its genre. I'm not sure of its suitability for long-term play but I'm also not sure that's even an intention of the game. But I could easily see running numerous one-offs with this game, perhaps all related to one another, sometimes using the same characters or rolling over characters from one story to another. The film adaptation for Frank Miller's Sin City comes to mind as I think of it. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get my cigarette, whiskey flask, fedora, and trench coat.

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