“It was the kind of situation I liked to avoid, or terminate quickly. As the century wore on – I could feel it wearing on – angry pointless encounters like this one tended more and more to erupt in violence.” – Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
You’re a tormented man with a dark secret in his past. You have one goal – a burning need to achieve one thing before your grim, wicked life comes to an end – but you’ve no idea how to set your plans in motion. That’s when she walks in, with smoldering eyes and legs up to there …
One Can Have Her puts you in the gumshoes of an archetypical noir hero (the nervous government agent, the greedy nightclub singer, the arrogant doctor) and pits you against “two or more” others, all competing for the girl, the gold watch and everything else this topsy-turvy world promised you when you first entered it all those years ago.
“I’m interested in film noir,” says Jonas Ferry, the Swedish creator of One Can Have Her, “and have watched a lot of old classics. There’s something about the strict formula of transgression/punishment, the desperation of the characters and the moral ambivalence that makes me watch them.”
With One Can Have Her, Ferry says he was looking for “a new way of generating story through conflicts.” And to do so, he had to reinvent the roleplaying game, introducing an element sorely lacking in spite of over two decades of RPG evolution: real storytelling.
For roleplayers interested in something other than Dungeons & Dragons – or Drakar och Demoner, a smilar game played in Sweden, which literally translates to “Dragons and Demons” – there are a host of commercially available alternatives, up to and including White Wolf’s World of Darkness games and Steve Jackson’s dizzying array of GURPS-based adventures . But as with any commercial industry, only the most commonly acceptable varieties of roleplaying games ever make it to store shelves, and even among those that do, very few become popular, and among those, according to Ferry and others, few provide “the tools needed to roleplay.”
Enter: The Forge.
“The Forge is an online forum for development and discussion of independently published roleplaying games,” says Ferry. “They produce a lot of ‘story games,’ roleplaying games that focus more on producing great stories than pretending to be another person for an evening.
“[In most roleplaying games] there’s always a lot of rules about car chases and the damage table when you take a fall … tables for how much damage a weapon does and how much a blanket weighs or things like that. … But I wasn’t interested in that. When I found The Forge, I realized they were doing games that focused on the things I was interested in – like story and character.”
In 2005, Jonas Ferry entered a 24 Hour RPG contest organized by The Forge founder, Ron Edwards. The contest (called “The Ronnies“) challenged game designers to create an RPG centered on any two of the words suburb, hatred, girlfriend or rat, in just 24 hours.
“I chose ‘girlfriend’ and ‘rat’ and wrote a game based on the prisoner’s dilemma,” says Ferry. The result was One Can Have Her.
A game in black-and-white inspired by film noir. Driven men in a dark underworld trying to stay alive long enough to set things straight. The Police Chief’s daughter seducing them all, but only one can have her.
Ferry’s game was selected as one of the event’s winners and was recently play tested at The Forge member Peter Nordstrand’s “OmniCon,” which, according to Nordstrand, “is basically a bunch of gamers in a cellar”
“The short version of this report is that the game went very well,” writes Nordstrand. “Finally a pick up roleplaying game that actually works!”
Players begin by choosing one of 10 character types (including Politician, War veteran, Journalist, Gangster) and one of 10 attributes (including Paranoid, Depressed, Idealistic, Hardboiled). Then, they decide upon their character’s life goal (what they hope to achieve before they die). The Game Master (GM) then chooses who each character’s enemy is, and introduces the femme fatale, the one woman each player wants, but only one can have.
“The character generation is quick,” says Ferry, “because most important stuff about them is created through collaborative play. I want to provide real choices for the players, so they can shape the story. I want to have the least amount of stuff for the GM to prepare before the game. I want to give him just the right blocks for the story.”
In One Can Have Her, players roleplay scenes established by the GM, in which their characters may come face to face with their enemies or get a chance to “rat” on one another. In One Can Have Her, no one is innocent, and the chance that your own crimes will catch up with you is as important a motivation as achieving your life goal and getting the girl.
“Players are not very invested in their characters pre-game,” according to Nordstrand. “This is not a flaw. All character development happens in actual play, which is fantastic! Characters are developed in action, so to speak, and so is the players’ investment and interest.”
Each character’s story is revealed through roleplay, providing the other players the opportunity to “rat” on that character – providing details of his crime to his enemies, lessening his chances of getting the girl and achieving his goals.
“I suppose one thing that attracts people to this genre and the characters is that they are allowed to have weaknesses,” says Ferry. “It’s very common in RPGs to play heroes or people who are perfect or are supposed to fight for what’s good. But if you play a noir character – especially in One Can Have Her – you have to have a crime that you have committed, so you’re not perfect. I think there’s an appeal there to play people who are less than perfect.
“Usually, if you watch film noir, you have this point where the character is at this dark threshold, and you know [if they cross it] things will go bad. I really enjoy that point, the turning point. In One Can Have Her, that has already happened, so you don’t get to experience that, but you can play out what happens after you take that step.”
Sounds, well, depressing, which is exactly as it should be. But does it work? Ferry has been revising and testing the game for over a year, and in one of his most recent tests he took the place of a player, instead of GM, so he could see what is was like on the other side of the table.
“You never know with play tests,” says Ferry. “Sometimes nothing works and it’s just embarrassing. But this time, it really felt like a complete game.”
Predictably, he won at his own game.
“It was actually kind of out of the blue, because the other two players’ characters were really involved in each other’s stories. They were at each other’s throats the whole time, and my character was kind of on the side doing his own thing. But to reach his life goal, I had to rat on them. So I went for it, and it worked; I got to describe what happened to the femme fatale and how I achieved my life goal.”
Ferry’s character, chosen from the character and attribute lists provided by the GM, was an “aggressive doctor,” whose life goal was to legalize abortion, not out of any altruistic feminist impulse, but to save himself from prison.
“One of the two other characters [in the playtest] was put away for life, and the other committed suicide as part of being ratted on,” Ferry says. “The father of the femme fatale was the governor of California, and one of the other characters was a paranoid FBI agent who was [spying on] the governor and blackmailing him and stuff.”
The FBI agent finished his character’s story by describing how he leveraged his political capitol against the governor to get him thrown out of office. Ferry used this as an opening for a little circular storytelling, describing how his character made sure a politician more in favor of abortion was elected to replace the governor, thus achieving his life goal and getting the girl to boot.
Ferry has commissioned brooding, black and white art for the game’s eventual publish, which may or may not involve game-specific material, but for the time being all that’s required is a deck of ordinary playing cards and imagination. He continues to play test the game and is now offering the latest version as a PDF on his own site, and hopes to eventually publish it in book form at lulu.com. Where it (and his game design career) goes from there depends on how well it’s received, but so far it looks promising – quite unlike a noir storyline.
“One of the things that attracts me to film noir is they really allow the ending to be tragic and depressing and downbeat, which I really like,” he says. “It feels real for some reason. All crimes in noir have to be punished. And that’s one of the places where my game differs, because in my game, you can actually achieve [your] life goal if you’re the only one left. But everyone else gets the downbeat ending and depression and death and stuff.”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.