Nordic Noir, role-playing style

Here’s a game I consider under-served. I would say “criminally” so except for the poor joke it entails, which is too bad, because yes, it’s criminal. Matt Gwinn’s The Hour Between Dog and Wolf is an excellent detective vs. serial killer role-playing game, and here I speak as someone who was heartily sick of the whole thing since the late 1990s. And despite my forced admission to be attentive to Nordic Noir, mainly because I live here now, I am generally not interested in S*E*R*I*A*L K*I*L*L*E*R (the mind of, the true history of, the original interviews with, etc. etc).

But this game does it a little differently, mainly because the “does he get caught” question is reasonably and effectively handled via decisions, dice, and plot … but the world itself is also at stake in purely thematic terms. For example, the killer might be caught, but the detective may have been forced so far into the killer’s mindset, or had it confirmed through other experiences, that he or she has come to share it. And in this sense, the detective’s point of view is very much the audience’s, insofar as an audience is unable to disagree, if they take the events seriously enough to consider them a story at all.

Nate and I played it at Spelens Hus, with Sandra participating as “active listener.”

THE KILLER (disorganized): Compulsion 3, Cunning 5, Control 2; Victims 1

  • Hjalmer Karlsson, plumber
  • Framing components: Company car, Forest countryside house, Avoids people’s gaze, Keeps things clean, What do you do with the bodies?, I am at peace at home, Plumbing profession, First victim stood on my car

The components for the framing diagram work like this: we each choose four for our own characters, which are listed here in ordinary text, then we take turns asking each other questions, which the other may either answer or may choose to leave as a question; these latter are listed in italics, and that’s why a couple of those are phrased as questions.

THE HERO (armchair detective): Obsession 4 (2+2), Stability 5, Conscience 3; Evidence 1

  • Benno Tuovinen, author
  • +2 starting Obsession, failed Investigation = +1 Control

Framing components: Looks good all the time, Father’s sports car, One breakout popular book, Needs a vacation, Too many recent bad relationships, Kinky mystery, Nice apartment in Gothenburg, How is your father?

The characters’ scores also generate some social and environmental setting values. Given these specific values, our society starts with mid-range grey weather, content/stable society, indifferent conscience, generous, white-collar, very competent control – thus it’s establishment, a bit privileged, not very moral but all the law-and-order forms are in place. During play, whenever any score’s value changes in play, the “world” changes, or its qualities are re-emphasized. This Is a matter of presentation and audience perception, rather than an in-fiction change or a setting in the traditional RPG sense.

Given those social qualities, we decided that our story would take place on the west coast of Sweden, in an affluent community with lots of professional homes and services, a profitable scattering of tourist cottages and camps, and some high-profile high-tech startup centers.

Our scenes went like this (Nick first, then alternating): Investment, Crossing the Line, Murder + Drop, Personal, Misdirection, Investigation + Obsession, Ruination, Crossing the Line

Briefly, either the Hero amasses considerable Evidence or the Killer kills a considerable number of Victims for the game to end, with certain outcome parameters included similar to those in My Life with Master, although suggested or exemplary, not mandatory. In our case, we ended the session of play with only 3 Evidence and 2 Victims, a very long way from finishing play.

This was due partly to our starting builds, especially my decision to go “to the middle” when I could have begun with a remarkably high Obsession. It’s also partly due to one significant two-scene outcome composed of my failures to Investigate and to Cross the Line the second time, which would have racked my Evidence up to 6, within spitting distance of ending play. Instead, the results included reduced Evidence, higher Control, and other significantly decreased advantages for my Hero.

So however it turns out, we’re in for a long haul, and given the fiction so far, it looks as if a lot of the drama that does change Evidence and/or Victims is going to be societal rather than individual deductions/sneaks. The “world” has changed a lot due to the changes in various scores, now less lawfully controlled, more selfish (although still middling), and – interestingly – maxed out in terms of professional elitism. So the situations and people will have moved distinctly “up the chain,” which makes me think in terms of privileged mean people and cover-ups. If we keep playing, which I’d like to do, I can imagine scenes about image development or legal effects which may not even include our characters’ direct involvement, just as targets.

[I might have mandated high Compulsion and Obsession, Low Conscience and Cunning … say, Obsession 6 (+2 = 8 in this case), Stability 2, Conscience 2; and Compulsion 6, Cunning 2, and Control 2. The effect would be to rack up both Victims and Evidence pretty quick, perhaps permitting a full story (similar to a one-hour TV episode) in a single session. Incidentally, that also mandates that we’d start with a horrific environmental tone, criminal morality, greedy social behavior, working-class to disenfranchised economics, and suspicious, aggressive law enforcement.]

Some misplays: forgetting the frame roll for the first Murder scene, although that turned out OK when we did it a few minutes later and got results that retroactively fit our choices perfectly; moving quickly into the resolution roll for the Personal scene without establishing any fiction (and this was at my suggestion, which upon viewing simply baffles me; what was I thinking?); and putting my character into Nate’s Misdirection scene despite not having the Plot Points to do it, which we realized and retconned out after a couple of minutes. I thought we dropped a little too much of the fiction in terms of actual play, but I also realized this began and escalated at the halfway point and was due to my fatiguing out – eight scenes is a lot, and we probably should have stopped after the failed Investigation+Obsession, which was a pretty high note. You can see Sandra realize this before I did.

I edited the recording pretty heavily for the instructional and setup parts, in order to focus on the conduct of play, so I recommend looking at the attached files to see what we’re referring to on the table.

Finally, I did get confused a couple of times, in ways I don’t remember from the last time I played (a late-stage playtest version before official release). First, I don’t know if a die that lands outside the framing diagram counts in terms of being the highest die or not; and second, I could have sworn that I should have been racking up a lot more Stress, but couldn’t find other ways that it increased.

Oh yeah! One last thing: I did present the game’s inclusion of the X-Card when we began play preparation, which Nate instantly rejected (“we won’t need that”) with Sandra’s confirmation.

The game is available here.

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6 responses to “Nordic Noir, role-playing style”

  1. A few Notes/observations/clairifications from the Game Designer

    Great session. Can't wait until the next one.

    Here are some notes/observations/clairifications I jotted down as I listened.

    I'd like to commend you for your efforts to emphasize the Setting mechanics. It's a part of the game a lot of people forget about in the heat of game play (myself included). For me, the link between the characters and the setting is really important if you want to dive deep into existential exploration of our influence on the world. Some people are more into focusing souly on the story, which is perfectly. You can enjoy the game either way. 

    The first scene should always be a Murder scene. One, this sets the horror level for the rest of game, and two, it triggers the Hero into action by bringing the Killer's presence to their attention.

    You don’t have to roll on the framing table for The Drop or Filing Paperwork as they are extensions of the Murder and Investigation scenes and should be relatively brief.

    Dice that land outside the Framing Table count in regards to Plot points.  

    When spending Plot points to roll additional dice you need to describe where each of those dice came from. How did the aspect of the setting that is tied to the trait you are rolling assist you or hamper your opponent? For example, in a Murder scene the Killer might see something in the setting that really triggers their Obsession. Maybe a color they hate, or a hair style that particularly annoys them. It doesn't have to be a big thing, but it's important as it keeps the game from becoming too much about the mechanics and resource management. 

    The Killer can be arrested before the end of the game, they just can’t be defeated/killed. For example, the killer’s lawyer could get them out on a technicality, they could escape, they could continue manipulating events from a prison cell via flashbacks or preplanned events that are set to trigger at the right time. This is a particularly interesting option for Killers with high Cunning.

    For Ruination Scenes the Killer doesn’t need to instigate the Setting’s actions against the hero. The setting is acting on its own as it has been corrupted by the Killer’s mere presence. For example, if I recall correctly, the Killer contacted the Hero's publisher who subsequently put pressure on the Hero to back off the real life mystery solving. The Killer didn't have to be involved with that, he didn't even need to know it was happening. For a minute I thought you might do the scene as a TV news report about how the famous mystery writer was trying to solve a real life mystery, which would have caught the attention of his publisher, and probably the police.

    Keep in mind that increasing Evidence and Victims, is not the only way to end the game. You can also choose to tear down your opponent’s Traits, thus lowering your target numbers. I'm not sure where your Traits are currently.

    It’s been brought up a few times that there are not enough ways to increase Stress, which is something I’m considering some adjustments in the updated version of the game I’ve been working on. They havn't been sufficiently playtested though.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents. I hope Nate and Sanda are enjoying the game.

    By the way, I love when people post actual play sessions of the game as they remove the false presumption that the game is emotionally unplayable due to the subject matter. Seriously, more people get brutally murdered in the first 20 minutes of any given Pathfinder session.

    Thanks again for playing.

    • Hi Matt! It’s great to see

      Hi Matt! It’s great to see you here. I wouldn’t mind boosting this post a little to spread some appreciation for the game.

      So … putting your last point first, I completely get you. Furthermore, the game is right in line with an incredibly popular genre in TV and movies, so it’s not as if you’re personally violating some larger standard. The position you’re describing is familiar to me from decades of role-playing: that for some unknown reason, this activity should not or cannot represent the full spread of fictional content that’s easily available across all the other media. I have asked many, many people to explain this and have never received an understandable answer … especially since I’ve also played so many games, with many people, sometimes personal friends and sometimes first-time acquaintances, for whom going “this far” (whatever it might be, but well out of the range of most role-playing texts) is perfectly all right.

      Anyway, on to my “actually” responses … I tried to explain to Nate that he didn’t have to play Hjalmer doing anything to mess with my character, that the setting was more appropriate as the “agency,” but it didn’t get through and I decided not to gum things up to the point of telling him how to play (I’d strayed a bit that way already). Considering the nature of the setup and events, we’ll have to clarify that very explicitly for the next time.

      I remembered that the first scene was supposed to be a Murder, but I tried to find that rule and couldn’t, in the heat of the moment. I decided not to enforce it if it wasn’t there, but apparently, well, it is.

      I used the wrong word when I said “arrest” in play, but clarified to Nate at some other point that arrest was OK, but not defeat, or “caught” in the most final sense of the word, until the end of play. The killer-in-prison circumstance is clearly a classic and available for play. As for the end itself, yes, I also understand about reducing attributes rather than merely racking up bodies and clues, but from our current position that’s a long haul too.

      That’s enough actuallys, all done. I appreciate your help with the rules I wondered about, and I know we’re going to use them, as Nate and I set the date for the next session, and I bet Sandra will join us. She was a very effective “other mind” at the table and, now that I think about it, the game really benefits from a literal audience.

      I have another thought that I’ll start in a new comment.

  2. Economic identity and conflict, serial killer style

    Here’s another topic that arose as I thought about the game. We’re in Sweden, setting our story in a Swedish region which is known to both of us (although it’s pretty far from where you see us), and although we’re playing in English, we assume all the characters are speaking in Swedish, so I guess you could say we’re using subtitles. The point is that the class issues inherent in the “setting” variables take on a different shape here than in the States.

    OK, a lead-in point to that is obvious in many Nordic Noir TV shows, which have a tough time reconciling their nauralistic style (semi-documentary gritty “real world,” basically) with the fact that this whole region has a low crime rate, a very low murder rate, a narrow breadth for wealth differences, and considerable free health and living-support services which are simply unimaginable to U.S. residents. In other words, the fictional genre is trying to tell us that people here are dying in droves from maddened serial killers when the fact is that even in a single show, they manage to exceed the entire nation’s actual murder rate for the year after three or four episodes.

    The shows get around this in different ways. Sometimes they just ignore it so the series seems like a murder-Disney fantasy version of the region, sometimes they dial down the number of murders and focus on a complex case instead of “body of the week,” sometimes they play up the lifestyle into clueless complacency and hypocrisy, and sometimes, most famously in Bron, they re-imagine the area as an 80s version of itself, when the Nordic countries underwent an economic depression and before the social services were extensively revised and re-implemented. So in that show and a couple of others, Göteborg (Gothenburg) or Helsinki or Reykjavik look like grey, muddy Nordic versions of East Germany with roving gangs and trash everywhere.

    So – the game is pretty blunt about the class (status, wealth, privilege) levels of play, and speaking as American-born, it is effortless for me to grade among the seven available steps and to treat them as distinct, when the game is set in the States. Doing that in Sweden is odd. Jobs like Hjelmar’s, as a plumber, are not low-status, they are not badly-paid, they are not uneducated, and they are not subordinated. There is a blue-collar/white-collar divide that people get opinionated about, but it’s not the same issue at all in terms of who can “look down on” whom, which in the States includes who is paying whom and who can tell whom what to do (and of course receives passive-aggressive retaliation in return). A barrista or nail tech in Sweden actually has a solid degree and understands their entire industry from a policy perspective – they aren’t servile or deferential, and (for example) the college prof or business owner who gets their coffee or gets their nails done doesn’t condescend to them. They all get full health care from the same doctors, they all use the same simple tax form, and they all get four to six weeks of paid vacation every year.

    Whew … well, that means when we shift to a different dot in that line, it should really really shift, but in Swedish terms. Incomes do vary, so, for example, what you do with your vacation may vary – the location for our game definitely caters to higher-income and to well-heeled foreign tourists. But otherwise it’s not the same at all. it’s really weird for me because I’m feeling my way through exactly what “he’s a plumber” even means in my new home, and it’s so normal to Nate and Sandra that they don’t see the same questions. We need to make those steps count, but they’ll count in a fashion that doesn’t do the same thing as it does in the fictional genre when it’s set in the States or in the UK.

    • I never really considered how

      I never really considered how the socio-economic differences in other countries would play into those mechanic. Probably because I based the game on American movies and TV show, plus I never imagined anyone outside of the US even hearing about the game let alone play it. I was very very wrong about that by the way. It always amazes me wide my customer base is.

      Not having been anywhere outside of North America I'm not really knowledgable enough to even start figuring out how to rework that aspect of the game to accomodate a broader, less jaded audience.

      I have considered writing a varient of the game that revolves around lesser crimes. So rather than a Killer you'd have a professional Cat Burgler, Bank Robber or Con Man. The mechanics would essentially be the same, just reskinned.

    • Oh, if you play in teh future

      Oh, if you play in teh future or know someone that wants to play, I ahve write-ups for new Hero types – The Meddling Kid (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Buffy) and The Survivor (the one that escaped the Killer).

    • Thinking about it a bit more

      Thinking about it a bit more – first, I don't think any change to the rules is part of my point of view, because this is more about interpretation and meaning. It's probably pretty easy or clear for any shared-culture group simply to assign meanings to the different values of Cunning. The only tricky thing is when, as now, you have people playing from life-experiences of significantly different economic hierarchies. My concern with this game is to get Nate and Sandra to be aware of that variable – especially as an agent in play, with Hjalmer absent – and to let them lead the way in defining it.

      Second, it also strikes me that the differences among the steps have less to do with income and more to do with ethnicity and origin. That's a huge issue in Sweden. Maybe the higher values correspond to privilege in terms of Swedish ethnicity, such that all sorts of little things tacitly "go your way" in terms of bureaucracy, convenience, availability, and opportunity. At a lower value, a similarly qualified person even with an equivalent income, who happens to be an Arab who moved there ten years ago, would face multiple hassles and unexplained little blocks and delays, and far fewer of the social confirmations that are necessary for opportunities to open up. Since we're talking about environment, not our characters, the idea is that this value provides the location and circumstances of scenes, including the most active agents within it.

      So in our case, maybe the point is not that people in the hotel or in the various communities we've seen are rich, and thus privileged, but that they are very Swedish-ethnic up and down the income range, and it's just "known" that everyone is happier that way. I'll run that past Nate and Sandra to see what they think.

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