GenCon 2007 and Me—Dirty Secrets

In game design, role-playing games on July 25th, 2007 at 2:12 am

(designed by Seth Ben-Ezra, published by Dark Omen Games)

Like Jason Little, Seth Ben-Ezra and I know each other because of boardgaming. In fact I had no idea that Seth was a RPG designer, let alone an influential one, until about a year ago. Seth was there at the birth of so-called “Forge theory,” and the Forge community itself. He just published his first game, Legends of Alyria, but he developed it in public on the defunct website The Gaming Outpost, and it floated around in various forms for almost a decade. Legend is also a major influence on other, more famous games like Polaris (the tao-games website is undergoing maintenance just now) and Universalis.

He is also one of My Play’s few regular readers 🙂

When I stumbled across a playtest report on his blog to a hardboiled detective fiction RPG he was working on, I left some words of encouragement. Within a couple days, Seth e-mailed me, asking if I’d take a look at what he had.

Now, as it happens, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald are two of my favourite authours, with Dashiell Hammett not too terribly far behind. Similarly, Chinatown and Brick are both top 20 movies of all time as far as I am concerned. I’ve even read Chandler’s essay on the significance of hardboiled fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, as well as the essay about the genre that he wrote as a preface to his novel Trouble is my business, although it had been a while.

It is fair to say that I like hardboiled detective stories 😉

Bear in mind that investigation-focused roleplaying games are at least as old as the first edition of Chaosium‘s Call of Cthulhu, published in 1981. They’ve been problematic for exactly that long as well. The problem is that investigation scenarios require the players to find the clues that lead to the ultimate answer, and then interpret them correctly, or the story is likely to come to a screeching halt. The GM faces the task of developing a sequence of easy-to-interpret clues that the players can follow, even in the face of terrible luck. Most players will also rebel against a design that leads them by the nose from point A to point Z in a straight line through points B through Y.

Until recently, game designers have not even tried to help solve this problem. The first real attempt to change this came earlier this year in the form of Robin LawsGUMSHOE system, first used in The Esoterrorists. It takes a resource management approach, and the consensus seems to be that GUMSHOE solves this problem, but suffers from stylistic issues of its own. No game works for everyone, but, for my money, the narrative structure for Dirty Secrets solves these problems brilliantly. I think Raymond Chandler’s approach to writing his mysteries inspired it.

The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing….Undoubtedly the stories about them had a fantastic element. Such things happened, but not so rapidly, nor to so closeknit a group of people, nor within so narrow a frame of logic. This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter.

-Raymond Chandler, Trouble is My Business

Dirty Secrets also cares more about good scenes than nice tidy plot lines. No one knows all of the answers until the last scene or two, either. The system throws new twists at the players and gives the players the power to throw new twists at each other. This can leave them scrambling to keep their heads above water, but it also promises to create hardboiled mysteries.

I am still wrapping my mind around the most radical concepts in some independent RPGs. When I read about games like The Shab al-Hiri Roach or Universalis, they challenge my ability to visualize how they would work in play. Dirty Secrets is every bit as radical as any of them, and I haven’t even had a chance to play it yet, but it clicked for me instantly. It was genius, and I was hooked.

Dirty Secrets is every bit as radical as any of them, but for some reason it instantly clicked for me. I’ll wait until I get a copy of the finished book to go into why Dirty Secrets is so great. For now, I’ll just say that it is unlike any previous investigation-based RPG, and that is a very good thing.

I sent Seth a few paragraphs of comments. Most of them were thoughts about the genre, which Seth requested as an aside to readers at one point in the draft. Seth apparently liked them (although I think he had already reached them all, either on his own or in discussions with Ron Edwards), and we exchanged a few more e-mails, hammering out some nuances. A couple of weeks later, Seth told me that he was working on his final text for the game, which he planned to release at GenCon, and asked if I’d mind giving it a look.

By this point, Dirty Secrets had become something of a labour of love for me. The potential I saw to finally do this genre that I love, abused by numerous RPGs over the years, right was like a shot of adrenaline for me. Even better, Seth had mentioned his intention to include an extensive section of tips and techniques for making the game run its best, a place that I feel most RPGs drop the ball. I went to work.

The first section Seth sent me was the first half of that play advice chapter. I made several suggestions for improving the text and sent Seth some questions about points that weren’t clear to me. This is about all I think Seth expected when he sent the file to me. I also completely rewrote small sections of the text for clarity, though, and did a complete copy edit (to the best of my meagre abilities). I even added a couple of ideas of my own for play techniques. Mostly I just massaged and larified Seth’s text and helped his ideas shine brightly.The word processor’s reviewing features made this process possible. I could just make changes, and let the program flag them. I could also connect suggestions, comments and questions directly to the section of the text they referred to, maximizing clarity. I could not have been as thorough without those tools, since the process would have been several times longer and significantly more frustrating for us both.

As Seth put it after I sent my notes to him, I made the “page” bleed ink 🙂 He also said that he kept the vast majority of the changes that I suggested, which felt good. Knowing that I was having an effect and that my ideas were valued gave me a real boost of motivation.

This was complicated a little by a tight deadline, though. I took a rather leisurely pace with the first section, but then Seth let me know that he wanted to get the text finalized and in the hands of his print designer (his wife Crystal) by July 20. I had received the first part of the manuscript on June 19, and finished with it about a week later. Then, a couple of days later, Seth said that Crystal had an attack of nerves, and could I get as much as possible done by July 10.


Nevertheless, I managed to get through the entire book. I didn’t make any major suggestions (and didn’t dare edit in changes) to the actual rules, but otherwise I did the same things for the rest of the text that I did for that first chunk of text Seth sent me. Ultimately, I ended up running a couple of days over, but as far as I know, it wasn’t a major problem.

I think the player advice section is among the best ever included in a roleplaying game, too. It may not be better than Dogs in the Vineyard or Spirit of the Century, but it is definitely in the same league.

Yeah, I’m proud of my work. I’m even prouder of Seth’s work and vision, though. This post has focused unduly on my contributions because that is the story that I can tell. I was just nibbling around the edges, though. 99% of the hard work and inspiration was Seth’s (with an assist from Crystal).

Seth is releasing the result of this process as a first edition. It’s complete, and it’s polished, but may still be room for improvement in places. People that give him feedback that helps make the eventual second edition better will get a deep discount toward that second edition.

If you like the hardboiled genre and roleplaying games, this is a must buy. Seth gets the genre, and he has created the first RPG that really lets the players experience it properly. People will be designing games that are heavily influenced by it for a long time to come.

  1. Wow. That’s a strong endorsement. Thank you very much!

  2. […] Cameron writes about Dirty Secrets and has some very good things to say. Yes, he did edit the book, but, as he notes, he did it freely […]

  3. Oh, by the way, my last name is capitalized like this: “Ben-Ezra”. You and Ron Edwards have this thing about not capitalizing the “Ben”….

  4. Oops. Sorry, Seth.

    I can’t speak for Ron, but personally it’s from seeing Israeli names featuring “ben-” that do not capitalize the “ben.”

    I’ll try to remember it in the future, and I’ll edit this post to fix the problem.

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