Thoughtprojektor – Film Noir Emotion Game

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film noir / role-playing games / thoughtprojektor

One of my longtime interests has been film noir and its predecessor hardboiled crime fiction. It’s something I wrote about many times while I was at school, and I even went back there a couple of years ago to lecture about it for a class in Comparative Literature. There’s something about the seamy world of double-crossing dames, obsessed detectives and greasy gunsels that just makes me happy, which is kind of strange considering how shitty it’d be to actually live there.

Batman the Animated Series pic

Digression: After I thought about it for a while, I decided that this interest of mine probably dates back to the days of Batman: The Animated Series, which is by far the best iteration of Batman on film or TV, and if you disagree with me on that, I’ll fight you. The world of Gotham City portrayed in some of the best BTAS episodes was straight up noir; hapless dopes ended up owing a psycho like the Joker a favor, or various ne’er do wells sat around reminiscing about crimes past at a poker game, for example.

Anyway, here’s a way in which I’ve tried to link up noir with another one of my interests, role-playing games.

One of the problems that comes with trying to adapt the dangerous world of noir to the RPG format is that the protagonists in classic noir are for the most part too human. They are driven by lust, greed and all the rest of the Deadly Sins, and this is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the, for the most part, altruistic and team-based motives behind Player Characters in most popular RPGs. A noir hero or heroine must be pushed to their absolute limit by their inner demons. It’s very similar in my mind to the classic slasher genre film, which has its best adaptation in Tony Lee’s Killer Thriller.

There have been various workarounds for this problem. Fiasco (review here: works at a sort of macro-scale, as the various tensions and rivalries built into their world of the game are constructed by players ahead of time. Unknown Armies ( works the obsessions of its damaged heroes into mechanics by having all of the magic schools in the game have “taboos”, repetitive behaviors that must be followed (or avoided) in order to maintain connection to one’s school. It also does a great job of symbolizing psychosis by having the characters become “hardened” to things like violence, the unknown, etc., replicating the way in which people must lose their humanity in these sorts of situations.

My idea is close to one put out by UA designer Greg Stolze in another of his games, A Dirty World, which uses sliding variables to set scenes and characters into various emotional states. My thought was to meld this system with the sort of powers one finds in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, with shades of Tim Powers and especially James Ellroy.

Cool (-100) —— 0 ——- (+100) Rage

Establishment/ Square (-100) —— 0 —— Street/Jazz (+100)

Detachment (-100) —— 0 —— Obsession (+100)

The chart shows on a scale from -100 to +100 where a character is currently sitting on various spectra:

Cool v. Rage shows how likely the character (let’s say “investigator”), is to fly into fits of violence, or react at a crime scene. It is a measurement of one’s freakout potential. To look at characters from my favorite movie, L.A. Confidential, Edmund Exley is definitely much cooler than Bud White, who’s extremely prone to rage.

Establishment (Square) v. Street (Jazz) shows the investigator’s relationship to society. Are they more likely to play by the rules, or are those same rules seen more as guidelines. Again, Exley would err on the side of the Establishment (at least initially), while Jack Vincennes would be closer to the Street.

Finally, Detachment v. Obsession measures the investigator’s personal attachment to the case they’re working at any given moment. This is a tough to grade in terms of L.A. Confidential, or anything derived from the works of Ellroy, as the natural tendency is for each investigator to become obsessed with a particular crime or person. Someone like Danny Devito’s Sid Hudgens would err closer to Detachment, as he’s much more interested in finding sleaze for his magazine than solving any cases.

The players would set up their characters, either according to noir archetypes like the Social Climber (high Establishment, high Obsession), the Blunt Instrument (high Rage, high Detachment) or the Bagman (high Cool, high Street), and then spend these qualities’ points in order to pull off various maneuvers, which would leave the character at a different emotional state with the benefit of having made a difference in the story. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, though, as I’ve definitely let this project slide. Hopefully you maybe found this interesting, I’m definitely still interested in pursuing it at a later date.

The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at

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