You Should Be Playing…
A Dirty World
The misty lights of the city loom large in the rear view mirror, all burned out neon and rotted out dreams. The rain gets into everything in the city, worming through tired brick and worn out wood until the damp seeps into your soul itself. Cars drive past on the wet pavement, each its own private world sealed off by a wall of transparent glass, and if they are lucky, the city stays out.
Love comes in at the eyes, however, and in the worst ways, there is something to love in this broken down wreck of a city. There’s something to make you stop your private little world, open the door, and set foot into this one. Maybe it’s the light of a late night diner pulling in lost souls like a flame pulls in moths, or maybe it’s the smile of a beautiful stranger, promising dangerous delights. The reason does not matter. What matters is that the city came in at your eyes, and now you have breathed its dirty, damp air. The house always wins, and in this game, the city takes all.
A Dirty World is a roleplaying game of ambiguous morality, questionable situations, and poor impulse control. Written by Greg Stolze, it was released in 2008 through Lulu.com and the Indie Press Revolution. A Dirty World rebuilds the One Roll Engine designed by Greg Stolze for the superhero game Godlike, and featured in Monsters and Other Childish Things. The One Roll Engine in A Dirty World focuses on heightening the sense of drama and conflict in terms familiar to any fan of the genre. The hard copy for A Dirty World retails for $17 through Lulu.com, and the digital version can be purchased for $10 through the likes of DriveThruRPG or Indie Press Revolution.
As a game about one of the most atmospheric cinematic styles in the 20th century, A Dirty World is rightly one that relies on a familiar palette to paint its pictures. Like a good film noir, A Dirty World is about uncertain situations, sudden twists, and a feeling of being in over your head. A Dirty World approaches the necessary internal conflicts from the ground up, using the strengths of the One Roll Engine through paired traits which play off of each other. Each half of a pair serves as a balance to the other half, limiting its growth while strengthening a character.
For example, Purity is paired with Corruption, and the more Purity a character possesses, the less powerful their Corruption can become. While at first glance this may seem to be a positive trait and a negative trait, like a good film noir, being good at being bad can be a necessary thing in A Dirty World.
Traits are categorized as Qualities and Identities, and combined they cover just about anything a person can do without specialized training. Each Identity has two pairs of Qualities, with one generally being more internal than its counterpart. Identities form the central tenants of a character, with a pair each for mental, active and spiritual traits. Patience and Cunning both describe how a character is intelligent, Vigor and Grace depict how a character physically acts, and Understanding and Persuasion details how a character interacts with others.
By contrast, Qualities are prone to greater changes during play and are much more transient as a result. The balance of these traits has one small caveat, as trait values can (and will) change over the course of play: reaching zero Patience, Vigor, or Understanding can quickly spell disaster for a character.
A Dirty World also features Professions, giving characters a framework for their narrative and a linked set of Qualities that would not otherwise balance each other. It also has Specialties that represent areas of expertise not covered by the other traits. Unlike Identities and Qualities, however, Professions and Specialties do not change over the course of play, and typically remain reasonably absolute.
While A Dirty World features character growth and advancement as a central mechanic, it eschews the typical tabletop model of experience points. Instead, A Dirty World uses its Swift Justice mechanism to allow players to slide one notch of a Quality to its matched pair at the end of each scene for free. This free slide must be relevant, and it cannot raise a Quality above five. At the end of each session, a point in one Identity can be slid as well, or “purchased” by lowering two unpaired Qualities a point. Finally, once per scene, a player with the Game Master’s permission may raise a Quality after having demonstrated they performed a significant action that falls in line with the Quality. Selfishness could be raised by deliberately stealing from someone who trusts you, while Observation could be raised after you are taken by surprise. These actions need not be directed at Non-Player Characters, either. Indeed, players are encouraged to conflict with each other as a means of character development. Winning a fist fight with your best friend may leave you with an extra point of Wrath, while they gain a point of Endurance for having survived losing.
The base conflict resolution mechanic of the One Roll Engine, unsurprisingly, features a single roll of dice per action. A player rolls a set of d10 equal to their pool, typically made from one Identity and one Quality.
Some actions are obvious, such as Vigor Wrath for beating a restrained suspect or Persuasion Purity to push someone away from that next drink. Others, such as Patient Selfishness for picking a lock or Cunning Defiance for trying to outthink the hand behind the bullets flying in your direction, require a little more creativity.
The dice, once rolled, are sorted into sets based on their value, or Height, with a Width equal to the number of dice in the set. Taller sets are more powerful, and wider sets are faster. If the obstacle is an inanimate object, a player merely needs to beat the Difficulty set by the GM. If the roll is opposed, the defender rolls their own dice pool, constructed based on their defensive actions. In the case of multiple characters, all characters involved roll their dice simultaneously. Then, starting from the widest set and working inwards, actions are resolved. Active defensive actions can be used to prevent actions with equal or skinnier sets, and are done so by removing dice that are shorter or equal from the attacking character’s roll.
The outcome of these opposed checks can include inflicting damage on an opponent in the form of forcibly sliding their Qualities and Identities. While at no point can a character force another character to perform an action, they can use the threat of the consequences from having no Vigor, Patience, or Understanding to coerce the character into taking the action. Quite like in real life, the man with the gun cannot make you give him your wallet, but he can certainly shoot you and then take it from you while you lay dying. The player must weigh the threat of these outcomes when committing to their course of action, and knowing that when push comes to shove, they can become people they never wanted to be.
Getting Your Hands Dirty
This dynamic means of advancement is unique and iconic to the genre of film noir. A good noir story is one where very little remains constant. A given character can go from loyal to treacherous with but a single revelation, and a given situation can go from bad to worse with a single complication. Characters are driven by deep-seated conflicts within themselves, and as they get swayed to one side, so does the opposite side get weaker. By allowing characters to make changes as easily as they can, and by making each change cost or risk something, A Dirty World holds the uncertain, treacherous nature of film noir in the very rules themselves. This is not an easy task, and it is rare to see a rules system that complements its setting as effectively as A Dirty World.
Beyond the game itself in A Dirty World, however, there is the One Roll Legal Problems appendix. This system gains a noteworthy mention as a method for generating adventures for A Dirty World which are rife with noir potential. Using eleven ten-sided dice, the One Roll Legal Problems can be used to create several plot hooks, each with their own complications and twists. To create a more complex or more focused adventure, simply add or remove dice. Generally, the more dice assigned to the plot line generated, the more compelling the story is. While a two-die-wide murder with an assigned twist may only be a case of a drug overdose, a four-die-wide murder with two twists could indicate a police conspiracy surrounding a gangland execution that frames a PC. For GMs who are looking for a quick inspiration for a game, or those less familiar with the film noir source material, the One Roll Legal Problems appendix is an invaluable tool at engineering a compelling story with ease.
Film noir is a kingdom in the American imagination, imperfectly capturing a time of anxiety and despair that devoured a generation. Its visual style, muddled motifs, and compelling characters have created a firm identity in our minds, a perennial genre as wide-sweeping as horror or fantasy. It tells timeless stories of troubled men, dangerous women, and the poor decisions that crash them against the rocks of a massive, uncaring urban landscape.
At the end of the day in a good film noir, the hero may have done something right, but the cost will always be high and the victory will never be clean. Above all else, A Dirty World understands that truth of film noir, and translates it into a playable form. The rules are treacherous, the characters conflicted, and the outcomes are ever in doubt.
And that is why you should be playing A Dirty World
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he is always on the lookout for creative tabletop games. He can be reached at email@example.com.
You can discuss this article and more on our social media!