The Next Game: Tone and Style

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the next weekly game I’m planning to run. The others in the series can be found here, here, and here.

rochester-sibley-building-01-atrium-elevatorsYou’re waiting for the doors to open. It’s some kind of miracle the place even has a working elevator. Most of the windows in the lobby were replaced by thin sheets of plywood. The ones that weren’t still carry the scars of the bullets that passed through. On the way in, you pass an old guy in faded blue coveralls pushing a dirty mop across the lobby floor. It isn’t clear if he’s making things better, or just spreading fresh filth.

Finally, the weak “ding” of the elevator’s arrival echoes through the lobby. It feels like minutes before the door jerks open and slides unevenly out of view. The floor of the elevator is about three inches above the level of the lobby floor and is stained from years of human traffic. You step up, and inside. It’s darker than it should be, with a few of the fluorescents buzzing and flickering, and others completely out. Above the elevator controls, some faded ad screams at you to call a particular lawyer if you’ve “BEEN IN AN ACCIDENT?!?” The plastic coating on the floor buttons is cracked and darkened to the point where the actual floor numbers are nearly unreadable. You press what seems to be the number “7”, the door jerks and erratically slides shut, and the elevator lurches upwards.

It was called to my attention after my last post that I neglected to include an “elevator pitch” for this game in any of my previous posts on the topic. This seems like as good a time as any for that, so here goes:

Streets of Hudson is a cinematic neo-noir crime drama set in the dirty streets of Hudson City, using the Streets of Bedlam setting for Savage Worlds (with a few modifications) combined with the geography of Hudson City: The Dark Abyss and the Savage Worlds Deluxe rules (with a few modifications). It draws inspiration from the neo-noir genre of films such as Chinatown, The Boondock Saints, Se7en, Sin City, and the films of the Coen Brothers, Brian de Palma, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Christopher McQuarrie, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino. It is a dark crime drama with a focus on investigation, interrogation, and dragging the transgressions of Hudson City into the harsh light of day, punctuated by bursts of ultraviolence. The characters aren’t white knights, but more angels with dirty wings, who aim to do Good, but are battling their own histories and personal demons.

I know it’s not perfect. It’s clunky, much like the elevator you found yourself in, rising towards whatever awaits you on the 7th floor. Still, it communicates what the game will be, and the style that the game will be trying to capture. But we didn’t come here, to this part of town, to this once gleaming building that is now a crumbling wreck, just for an elevator pitch. No. We came here to talk about the tone and style of this game.

First, let’s look at our gaming-related source material. First up is the Streets of Bedlam setting book. The introduction tells us a few important things about the tone and style of a Streets of Bedlam game. Let’s take a look at the important points:

  • Se7en - New Line Cinema (1995)

    Se7en – New Line Cinema (1995)

    Cinematic – I really like this one. The game should feel, as much as possible, like a good neo-noir film. I like the idea of a soundtrack for the game. The game should be composed of different types of scenes (more on that in a future installment). Scenes should sometimes start in media res, in the middle of things.

  • Ultraviolent – This one is something I’ll be changing a bit for my game. There will definitely be some ultraviolence in the game, but I’m angling for a game with a more investigative nature. We won’t be using the Dramatic Damage rules, instead going for more gritty, realistic damage. I have a Setting Rule that will make the damage a bit more gritty than standard Savage Worlds play (look for that in a future installment). Wounds will have consequences and take time to heal. A character whose face is slammed against a garbage truck will have some bandages on his face until his wounds heal.
  • Neo-Noir – This one is probably the most important. The city is a dark place. There are layers of crime and corruption. Nobody’s hands are clean. Even our “heroes” are fighting their own demons. They often have tragic personal histories and enough psychological baggage to make even a jaded shrink swoon. There is no way the characters can hope to clean the filth from the city. Remove one crime family and another rises up to take its place. Put one corrupt politician behind bars and the poor misguided populace elects another. The characters can make a difference, on a street-level basis. Cleaning up the city is well beyond the scope of this game. Making life a little better for some, saving the lives of others, taking some dangerous criminals off the street are the types of things the characters can hope for in this game.  Neo-noir also means the use of lighting and weather for dramatic effect. From the constant rain in David Fincher’s Se7en, to almost all of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight being set at night or under cloudy skies, to the insomnia-inducing never-ending daylight of Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, to the hurricane in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, or the snowscapes of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, weather and lighting affect the scenes, and reflect the tone of neo-noir
  • Crime Drama – Also important. The stories this game will tell are crime stories. Crime is rampant in this city and ordinary people are pulled into it on both sides of the law every day. This game will tell their stories.
Hudson City: The Urban Abyss - DOJ, Inc. (2004)

Hudson City: The Urban Abyss – DOJ, Inc. (2004)

That seems like a pretty good start. Since our primary source for the city’s geography is Hudson City: The Urban Abyss (and its earlier edition, Justice, Not Law), let’s glance at what that source has to say about games set in the city. While we’re at it, let’s also borrow a bit from the system that setting was designed for, Dark Champions. Here’s what Hudson City: The Urban Abyss has to say about the tone and style of the setting:

“As it’s presented in this book, Hudson City is primarily intended for Vigilante Crimefighting and Law Enforcement campaigns – it’s a gritty modern city with a major crime problem…” – Hudson City: The Urban Abyss, p. 200

Both the Streets of Bedlam setting book and the Dark Champions core rules agree that the setting is pretty close to that of the real world. There won’t be any “strange powers” or “superpowers” or anything of the sort. There is no miracle healing. When characters get hurt, they will take time to heal. Broken vehicles require repair or replacement. These things will usually happen off-screen, unless something happens to a vehicle in a car chase or something similar.

Both settings also agree that the time period they are designed for is the modern day (of course, one source was written in 2004, and the other in 2012). I did briefly consider setting the game in the late 1970’s, and I think that would be the second best time period for a game of this sort. The late 70’s were a time of turmoil. There were high crime rates in large cities. The nation was still recovering from the Vietnam War and the civil rights conflicts and political upheavals of the 1960’s.  That said, I think now is an excellent time for this game to be set as well. We are again a nation divided. Poverty and crime rates are once again high. The country is recovering from multiple wars. The spectre of terrorism and the resulting paranoia still looms.  Municipal infrastructures are crumbling due to lack of funding. Urban blight, like in the 1970’s, is again a factor.Camden_NJ_poverty

Another thing both settings agree on is that the game world, like the world of Quentin Tarantino films, is “more violent and conflict-prone than the real world.” (Dark Champions, p. 8) The game will feature fast-paced action, car chases, daring stunts, and fierce fights, but also mystery, tension, and suspense.

If I had to pick a Dark Champions genre from that sourcebook, I would say the game will be a “mixed genre” game with elements of the Vigilante Crimefighting and Law Enforcement genres, with the Mystery meta-genre (see Dark Champions, p. 17 for details) liberally applied, along with a healthy dose of the Tragedy meta-genre.

What does all of that mean?

dark hallwayThe elevator lurches to a stop on the 7th floor. The door opens unevenly and you step up a few inches onto the thin carpeting of the 7th floor hallway. There’s a bulb out a few feet down the hall, throwing uneven shadows on the walls. The smell is awful… vomit, urine, shit, whatever else. The old guy mopping downstairs hasn’t visited this floor in a long time.

Somewhere on 7 a door clicked shut. Hard to tell if it’s somewhere in front of you, or down some other hallway somewhere else on the floor. You unfasten your holster and slide the wallet containing your badge out of the inside pocket of the your coat. You haven’t been a member in good standing of the city police department for over a week now, but that isn’t stopping you from claiming affiliation when necessary. And pulling the worn leather wallet out of that pocket is just muscle memory from years on the force.

 

The plate on the door reads “714”… This is it. You take a deep breath and prepare to knock.

Once characters are created and the game starts, the “tone” of a game has a lot to do with the language you, as a Game Master, use to communicate the details of scenes to the players. It also has quite a bit to do with the atmosphere you establish in those scenes. From the elevator lobby to the door of Apt. 714, there are a wealth of details that make the scene feel lived in. I also like to have photos, in the case of a modern game, cued up on the laptop (or tablet of your choice, or even printed on actual paper) to help set the scene. If a scene features an important non-player character, I like to either bring that NPC’s picture up on the laptop, or slide it in the front pocket of the GM’s screen, so the players can see who they’re talking to.

I also use a website for the game, so the players can see NPC photos and biographies, key locations from the game, and whatever else I feel the need to post. Chances are, if it is used in a gaming session, it finds its way onto the web site. For my current game, I’m using Obsidian Portal, but that experience has gone downhill with the many changes to that service, so I will likely set up something like a Shutterfly Share site for this game. One of the great things about having a website like that for a game like this is that the players can post things in-character between gaming sessions.

Seriously.

A game like this is all about the characters. There is only so much time in a game session, so each character can only develop so much at the gaming table. My guidelines for in-character posting between gaming sessions are:

  • The post should be written in-character, from the character’s perspective, or from the perspective of a dependent NPC associated with the character.
  • The post can develop the character by expressing the character’s thoughts and reflections, sharing something from the character’s past, showing a scene from the character’s “down time” or “normal life” (slice of life post), or similar.
  • The post should NOT advance the story of the game, just deepen the story of that individual character. In other words, the character shouldn’t be going out fighting bad guys, chasing down leads, etc. in these posts.

For example: A player could write a post about his character taking his young daughter out to see the latest animated movie. On the way to the theater, they may pass something that reminds the character of the current investigation and causes him to reflect on it. Then, his attention shifts back to the night out with his daughter.

K-BillyAbove, I mentioned the game having a soundtrack. I always set-up a playlist for any game I’m working on, mostly to help me get into the atmosphere of the game world. Sometimes, my players never get to hear my soundtrack, or only hear very little of it (my current game had, at one point, quite a large group, so music would’ve been too much of a distraction at the table, and at this point, the game is too far along to change things up by trying to incorporate the soundtrack – besides, one of the players who was in the group early on felt that the music made the horror of the zombie game too intense), or sometimes the music is incorporated very obviously into the game (a Pathfinder haunted house scenario I ran a few years ago had music keyed to individual rooms, and to the house in general – one of the creatures had her own “theme music” that crept in whenever the characters were getting close to her, or she to them). For this game, I am following the Tarantino model and using a soundtrack heavy on classic rock and other oldies. This is a way to use that 70’s feel without changing the time period away from the modern setting. If you’ve ever played a Grand Theft Auto game, you know the music on the car radio is one of the main characters of the game (along with the city itself). I want the music to reinforce the mood, and sometimes serve as a counterpoint to the violence in the game. The way I plan on making the soundtrack feel organic is by having a “hits of the 60’s & 70’s” station be one of the most popular stations in the city. The popularity is driven not only by the music, but also by the personalities of the DJ’s… Yep, that’s another anachronism in this game. DJ’s still exist and still host their time slots on their radio stations.

taco-boxAlso useful in establishing the tone of a game are the locations which will be featured, either as locales for the action, or just as hangouts for the characters during “downtime” in the game. I like to find a good supply of pictures to use for the locations, both to have on-screen during gaming sessions, and to post on the game’s website. The game’s locations give a lot of flavor, and as a GM, I love to hear players pull them out and use them in-game, for example: when it comes time to set up a meeting with an informant, or some other meeting place, or just as a place for the characters to visit on the way to or from something (“On the way to the reservoir, we stop at the Taco Box for something cheap to eat. I know it’ll make us sick later, but it’s 2 am, and it’s what’s open.”)

HCFD Asst Chief Hickey

Is it real, or is it Photoshop?

In addition to locations like the Taco Box, I also like to use vehicles to establish the setting. The ubiquitous emergency vehicles of a city are a fine example. I like to have pictures of those available for use at appropriate times. While we’re on the subject of vehicles, neo-noir just screams out to me for the characters to drive large classic Detroit steel – classic muscle cars. They don’t have to be in pristine condition. Actually, it’s better if they aren’t. Prime examples of this are Frank Castle’s Pontiac GTO, Nash Bridges’ 1971 Plymouth Barracuda, and countless others from the Gran Torino to the Mustang to the Impala to the Firebird (though if a character drives a Firebird, he almost has to have a mullet).

1968 Pontiac GTO

1968 Pontiac GTO

Along with locations and vehicles, another key to establishing the setting are the ancillary NPC’s. I’m not talking about the main NPC’s who will feature in important roles in the game’s story. I’m just talking about “flavor” npc’s. There are guys like the pimply-faced kid behind the counter at the Taco Box, the radio DJ spinning the super sounds of the ’70’s, or the lady who lives down the hall from a character’s apartment. Sure, these could become central NPC’s later on, but for now, they are just there for flavor. An example of this from a Harvey Justiceprior game, which was also set in Hudson City, is an acidic shock-jock radio talk show host named Harvey Justice. If the characters’ exploits make the news, Harvey Justice is sure to feature a scathing lambasting of their actions on his radio show the next day. Harvey is prone to controversy, picks at the scabs of the city’s wounds, and generally makes the tension in the city worse. The character is an adaptation of Howard Fitzwater, Jr. from Hero Games’ Underworld Enemies, combined with any number of modern talk radio hosts, though I modeled my adaptation after a particular real world example. The picture I used for him is to the left. I have no idea where I got it from, but it seemed to suit Harvey pretty well. Before you ask, yes. Harvey Justice will be making appearances in this game as well.

Finally, another thing that helps establish the tone and style of a game, especially using the Savage Worlds system, is the Setting Rules that are used in the game. These will be discussed in detail in a future installment.

 

DGMiller

Darren is a life-long geek, an avid gamer (both tabletop role-playing and video games), and a writer and editor. He lives in South Carolina with his wife Barbara and his three rescued Siberian Huskies.

1 Response

  1. June 5, 2014

    […] crime setting using Jason L. Blair’s Streets of Bedlam setting for Savage Worlds. This affects the tone and language I want to use, and the way I want to implement it. Remember, the game is going to be […]

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