Fedora Noir is one of the winners of the 2023 Awards, an annual award given to twenty of the coolest games of the year! I’m incredibly proud of the work that Morgan, Scott, Alex, Marc, Maxine, Orion, Rainbow, Robert, Sharang, Sythana, and I put into the game. It was a long journey from Morgan’s original conception of a game about a noir as hell Hat to the final product, and I am deeply honored that it was selected to be recognized in this way.
I hope you’ll go over to The Awards and check out the other winners as well! For my part, I’m looking forward to playing as many as I can in the coming year.
In other Fedora Noir news, Alex White of Plane Sailing Games recently did a really thoughtful write-up of a recent game they played. There’s nothing better than knowing your game is helping make the fun!
I didn’t expect to play any sort of Dungeons and Dragons with our kid, ever, much less when he was only five years old. Heck, the last time I played any real DnD was like twenty years ago and I have zero interest in playing it myself. Yet here I am: a dungeon mommy. Let me weave you the tale of how it began… but without good voices because I am not a Real Dungeon Master.
We were cleaning out his room trying to make a donate pile of toys that he doesn’t play with anymore. A big plush d20 that someone gifted us a million years ago came into consideration. Marc suggested donating it, and I foolishly said aloud, “Well… maybe he’ll want to play Dungeons and Dragons someday.” To which the Hobblet immediately attached ignorant but strong desire.
I moved on to organizing puzzles, but his attention was secure. “Is that Dungeons and Dragons?” he asked as I sorted an alphabet puzzle (not DnD) from a Paddington Bear puzzle (… could we make a Paddington DnD??!) . “Can I play Dungeons and Dragons? I want to play Dungeons and Dragons. Mommy let’s play Dungeons and Dragons.” And if you’ve ever heard a five year old say “Dungeons and Dragons” over and over again in his irresistibly cute voice you can understand that I was powerless to say no. And so our DnD campaign began.
His first character was a human rogue named “I Squished Your Cake.” Over the course of an afternoon he fought a bunch of dragons (by which I mean he narrated doing something, rolled the plush d20, and was given results by me, the worst dungeon master of all time) and then moved on to the next activity.
A few days later, we were making a new character — an elf warrior named “I chopped down your house”, which transformed to “Chop Housedown” and finally landed on the lovable “Chop Downhouse.”
Of course we aren’t really playing Dungeons and Dragons as written. We don’t have character sheets and I certainly haven’t read any books. We use a d20 (or rock-paper-scissors if we are out and about) for success/fail conflict resolution (of course something interesting always happens on failure, I’m a modern parent). We aren’t keeping track of abilities or levels or any of that, just doing some fighty-make-believe.
At this point in our campaign, Chop Downhouse has lost his axe (he kept throwing it at monsters and finally a dragon just flew off with it), and so has his first real mission. He’s following a Sand Dragon’s tunnel to some promised treasure with his friend, the enemy wizard lizard turned friend, Quake.
Some children are very interested in world-building. Right now, our child is excited about throwing his axe and getting sweet treas’. (So far the treasure has been a magical apple that never runs out, a magical cheese that never runs out, and magical bread that never runs out. These are all good things.) Beyond the battling and the treasure, we will sometimes have a very nice conversation between his character and an NPC (again, with no voices because I don’t really DM).
All in all, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much fun I’m having playing our version of “Dungeons and Dragons” together. We share our creativity at the level that we can, inhabiting made-up worlds that we imagine in our own ways. We call it Dungeons and Dragons, but like all DnD, it’s something else that only exists within the experience of the players – a goofy little kid and his proud mama.
I live in terror of the day he learns to read and discovers that there are actual rules and maths.
World 1: World of Crab Camp, where we are crab creatures from the far future. We camp in the semi-flooded ruins of humanity and sleep in *shudders* sliming bags.
World 2: World of Dream Pod Ships, where we sleep away the long voyage to new planets to escape a dying Earth. We dream of camping so that we can develop the skills we will need once we reach our new homes.
World 3: World of the Great Camp Off, where we camp competitively. Best camper for World President!
World 4: World of the Ghost Mammoth, where we are ancient peoples, leaving our caves to camp out in the wilderness. You come of age when you discover something new, but beware the Ghost Mammoth, a mysterious monster in these days where we believe our scary camp stories and begin to weave mythology. Ghost mammoth – he’ll getcha!
Big thanks to Marc, Kelly, and Fina for making the magic happen!
One of the nicest things that I’ve been doing this year is getting a coffee at a very quiet cafe with Marc and playing a story game together. We are able to snag an auntie or grandparent maybe once a month to make this happen, and it’s always delightful. I’ve always been a big fan of the morning con slot, so the coffee games are a special treat.
Far and away my favorite game of the year has been In This World, the new gem from our dear friend Ben Robbins. I think I’ve played it at least 6 times in as many months. In In This World, you choose a topic, describe facts about the topic in the real world, and then make various imaginary worlds by changing and remixing those facts. It’s creative candy to someone who likes world-building as much as I do.
This weekend Marc and I were big cute dorks and took it to the meta level — In This World: Story Games.
World 1: World of Endless Role-Play
We started by changing “Story games aren’t about winning,” to “well, actually they are, and the way you win is by being the last to break character.” Starting a game was a big deal, because once you started being Eldrock the Elf, you couldn’t stop or you would lose. Started a game of Monsterhearts? Sorry, but every time you see Helen at yoga, you both have to pretend to have teen monster problems.
World 2: World of Worldcraft
This was my favorite of the worlds just for being cozy and a world I might actually enjoy. We started by changing “Players play characters” to “Players create worlds.” Story games were all only world-building games, and they always ended before a story began. Instead of playing out the story, a player might take the setting and use it to write a novel. Good vibes.
World 3: World of Bleed
And now for some yikes, in this world, players don’t play characters, they play themselves, and everything is a metaphor for real life. If I want to break up with you, my elf will break up with your elf in the game. And if you aren’t playing? I’ll record my elf playing with an NPC and send it to you. Yikes yikes yikes.
At that point our babysitting time was quickly running out, so we ended the game there, and went for a walk around the lake. But like all games of In This World, you can’t really stop thinking about it, so we made a bonus world on the move (no index cards babyyyyy we’re wild).
World 4: World of Jumanj-ish
In this world, what happens in the game happens in the real world. And designers don’t make games, they were unearthed from ancient tablets. But what happens in the game doesn’t happen to you, it happens to strangers. The players know it’s happening, they just don’t know to whom. But the godlike power is cursed, and the circle of who your game affects shrinks over time, first strangers, then friends, then finally, on your final game, yourself. oooOOOOOooo!
It was about an hour and a half of total play, for four very different and interesting worlds.
In This World, like all of Ben’s games, is expertly designed to get us exploring big ideas. But what I most appreciate about In This World is how it makes me feel that the magic of each and every game is us — people getting together and sharing our unique perspectives to make something new.
In a game of “In This World” by Ben Robbins, you take the world you know and remake it, focusing on a central topic. We kicked off 2023 with a delightful quick game, and to celebrate the season we created 4 alternate versions of Christmas. Did things get a little spooky? …. Yes. And awesome.
To start the game, you choose a topic and make a list of facts about it, describing the real world as the launching point: Santa lives at the north pole, Christmas is about goodwill, Christmas is highly commercialized, etc.
But what if things were different?
In this world (1), Santa takes toys from children and puts them in the woods for unhappy children to find.
In this world (2), Santa walks among us (sus). He’s a quantum being present in all communities, always. And, uh, he eats one person a year. Better leave out your tribute…
In this world (3), it’s always Christmas, and Santa isn’t real so you’d better be ready for presents and carols every day. The Christmas magic keeps it fun and capitalism crumbles (yay!).
In this world (4) we hang the bones of our loved ones on the great Christmas tree and celebrate with ritual and tradition, singing carols to guide the souls of our dead back home.
Four very different worlds all coming from the same ingredients, just changed and remixed in interesting ways.
I obviously love world-building games, and “In This World” delivers quick, collaborative world-building that leaves you thinking about the worlds that you make long after the game is done. It doesn’t hurt that it’s very simple to play and runs very quickly.
It was a great game to start the new year off with, and although “In This World” is still in playtest, I’m looking forward to it being one of my go-to games of 2023!
“Big Bad Con. A convention that never sleeps, especially when the fire alarm goes off at one in the morning. Backroom deals on RPGs, on-demand gaming, and the eyes of the titular wolf watching over it all. Nobody makes a move without the Big Bad getting a sniff. If you’re smart and savvy you can make a name for yourself, but one misstep and you’ll find out what sharp teeth he has.”
I had the pleasure of attending Big Bad Con a while back (October 27th-30th, 2022), and as part of my time I got to play two back-to-back Fedora Noir games with people I’d never met. I’ll admit I felt rusty–I hadn’t run a pickup game in person with strangers since… what, 2019? But I didn’t need to worry: Fedora Noir was ready to guide me.
The game handles like a dream. I literally opened the box, pulled the top instructional card, and was playing instantly. No struggle whatsoever. And did I mention the fun? We had fun. Lots of fun. There were laughs, dramatic moments, tense encounters, and everything else I love about story gaming. My players enjoyed the Hat/Detective banter and the way the Partner and Flame push the Detective in different directions. The first session–a classic New Hudson frame job–ended with the Detective utterly failing to exonerate anyone, including themselves. And in the second game, we played Atlantea City. Fish puns ahoy! My favorite moment was the evil monologue delivered by crime boss Maura Fishsimmons. Like any good villain, she revealed her true plans as she stroked the fluffy cat giant crab in her lap.
I knew going in that Fedora Noir was a brilliantly engineered experience, but now I know it packs a lot of fun into a short window. Our games clocked in at just over an hour and a half from start to finish. Perfect for a two-hour convention slot.
Thank you to all the players who gamed with me: Kat, Richie, Shervyn, Charles, Jill, and Maria. You brought the heat that fueled the fire, and with a game as combustible as Fedora Noir, it’s no wonder we had an awesome time. Grab a copy for yourself and find out what I mean!
I’m a big fan of picking up games in PDF. I have a beautiful library of games on my tablet that I can whip out for a game night or a convention (remember those? *tiny tears*), and instead of lugging around a big bag of books, I just have to remember to charge my ancient iPad mini. Besides, it saves me money and it saves some trees. All good stuff.
Usually, the only thing I end up printing from a game book’s PDF is a couple of character sheets or a playset. But what about when the format shifts from being a PDF of a book to being a PDF of a card deck? It gets a little tricky.
Just like you wouldn’t print a whole book out, I don’t think you should print out all the cards for Fedora Noir. Here are the ways I would use the PDF:
In designing the game, I focused on making it a gorgeous physical deck. But I also really wanted people to be able to play without the cards, especially online, so I set up an online card deck that anyone can access using Story Synth.
It includes everything except the settings and actors. If you want to play with one of the included settings, you can use your PDF to share the relevant pages, or plop a screenshot of the one you choose to use over in your shared notes document.
Print & Play
I wouldn’t print a full card deck from the PDF since it would use a lot of ink and wouldn’t look nearly as nice as the professionally printed deck (which should be getting in the mail around March 2022). Instead, here’s how I would run an at-the-table game using the PDF:
Read the Instructions cards from your phone or tablet. You can pass it around the table, or one person can read each page. Just make sure you complete the procedures as you go. (You can also print these out as regular pages, or two to a page, if you don’t want to read from your device)
Make an X card at the table using an index card.
Make little standing cards that say each role and pass those out instead of the role cards. Give each player a notecard in case they want to make notes about their role.
Answer the case questions from your PDF.
The only things I’d recommend printing are the Chapter Cards and the “Playing the Story” card. In total, it’s 8 pages, black and white if you use my suggestions below:
Chapter Cards: The chapter cards are the only cards that have important information on the backs. I laid them out in this document to be a little more printer-friendly: Fedora Noir Chapter Cards – Print and Play
“Playing the Story” card: This is optional to print, but quite useful to have in front of each player. Print directly from the PDF (page 13). You can print 4 copies per page and give one to each player.
If you want to print any other cards (for example, settings cards or actors): Your printer/computer may have different options. On my Mac, when I go to print, I click on “Layout.” Then I select “4 pages per sheet.” They will be a little smaller than the tarot size, so if you’ve got eyes like mine, you might do 2 pages per sheet. Just print these single sided. There is no reason to print the backs.
Whether it’s online or in person, I hope you get a chance to play the game soon! Enjoy!
Most of the games I play are focused on a general type of story — Downfall (collapse of civilization), Kingdom (explore community dynamics), Epitaph (explore a single life), etc. For the most part, I enjoy playing games that have a lot of flexibility in terms of tone (Follow for instance can be just about any tone, regardless of whichever quest you choose) or setting (I obviously love games that let you create any setting you like).
Fedora Noir is a little different. With Fedora Noir, I was designing a game to emulate a specific genre (more like Fiasco or By the Author of Lady Windermere’s Fan), with the goal of encapsulating what makes the genre awesome and rules that enable people who aren’t familiar with it to still create those stories (we don’t need to get into whether ‘noir’ is a genre, I’m going to assert at the very least that hardboiled noir is one, and the game captures the cinematic mood of a noir, so there).
Development was further complicated by the fact that it was a pre-existing, unpublished game. I also had to make it be the best version of itself as it already existed, which already started out very, very good. These are some of the design choices that I made to accomplish those parallel goals:
Focus the Hat
The original roles in Fedora Noir were the Detective, the Hat, the Partner, and the Dame. The Dame changed to the Flame, but the Detective and Partner stayed more or less the same, with a little added character creation procedure.
The Hat, on the other hand, saw a couple changes. First of all, the Hat is awesome. I would never have come up with the idea for the Hat myself, that’s all Morgan’s brilliance. But there were some balance issues with the design. For one, the Hat wore (forgive me) too many hats. The Hat was responsible for 1. narrating the Detective’s thoughts, 2. solving the case, and 3. framing every scene.
I decided to focus the rules on what made the Hat the best tool for telling a detective noir — the voiceover. The Hat no longer frames every scene, and the rules don’t tell the Hat to solve the case. We all do that together, and mostly in the background. Instead, the Hat uses their energy to create dramatic irony, context, and witty one-liners throughout the game.
Set the Background
Morgan and I were really excited to hire writers to create a variety of settings for Fedora Noir. The settings all have a few things in common inspired by the genre, including brutal class disparity, bitter and counterculture characters, and corrupted power.
I also wrote a short procedure for how to create your own setting at the table, because how could I not. <3
Learn the Rhythm
Dividing a character between two players is tricky, especially for experienced role-players who are used to describing their character’s thoughts and feelings. It’s an inherently odd (but super cool) part of the game that requires a little bit of practice.
So I made a warm-up script. Three actually. The first chapter (more on chapters later) starts with the Detective and the Hat reading a script together that demonstrates how to pass play back and forth. When the script stops, the Detective and Hat keep role-playing, with the momentum of the script giving you something to talk about and an understanding of the back and forth rhythm of the roles. It gets you in the practice of giving the other player space and shows you how you can prompt the other player into doing or thinking about something.
Play the Arc
Perhaps the most time-consuming part of making Fedora Noir was watching all the movies. I wanted to design the game because I loved the original version, not necessarily because I knew a lot about film noir. So Marc and I sat down to watch some great movies (28 according to Marc’s notes).
To make sure the game followed the typical structure of a hardboiled noir, I designed a chapter framework. There are 7 chapters, each of which has 3 prompt options to choose from. The chapters help keep us on the rails of a detective noir while focusing the conflicts and camera on the characters’ relationships. I tried to strike a balance between keeping things open ended while giving enough structure for players who aren’t familiar with the genre to effortlessly create an awesome movie plot.
Each chapter has one scene, followed by up to four ‘moments,’ which let us do short camera shots of the action between scenes. Moments are great for quick exposition, introducing strangeness or something threatening, or moving the case along. They also feel very film noir-ish. You can narrate a long camera angle or describe a cool moody snapshot without having to make a whole played scene. They also help us keep the game short, so you can create a film noir in about the time it takes to watch one.
There’s more little bits that I changed from the original game, all with the goal of keeping it true to its original vision and emulating a specific type of story. I’m excited for people who played the original to get a look at this new version, and I’m extra super excited for people who never played it to create some awesome noir detective stories. <3
I don’t have the numbers — I’m not the spreadsheet guy in this game. Actually there are two spreadsheet guys (Marc and Ben, although I’m going to give the gold to Ben on spreadsheets), a sparkle who wears different cool glasses each week (Al), and a person (me) who apparently frames scenes with the fewest people in them, according to an aforementioned spreadsheet guy (2 is the right number of people for a scene folks. No questions).
So I’m not totally sure what number of sessions we’ve done (60 maybe?), or how many kingdoms we’ve created so far (8? I really could go count those now, but I won’t). But we decided to take a little break from our Kingdom 2nd Edition game to try out some things that had been on our to-play list.
After a very long 2 month hiatus (which included a spin-off fashion show game, see above), it was finally time to jump back into our Kingdom legacy game, Kingdomon. It’s Pokemon themed and it’s unsurprisingly amazing. You can read Ben’s write ups on it over at Ars Ludi and see some pretty cute fan art too. (We are the only fans of Kingdomon, despite how many times we’ve tried to make our friends and family listen to us ramble about this week’s Tappycat drama).
But we’d already made everything! There was no new Kingdom to create! Or so we feared. But the beauty of Kingdom Legacy is there’s always something new right around the corner. You can Microscope-it-up (as we say in the industry) and create big ideas across wide amounts of time, as everything else gets re-contextualized and made all-the-cooler.
So yeah, we found another angle to explore what it means to be in a community with Kingdomon (Kingdomon = Pokemon, keep up). We’d already done classic battle stuff, living in harmony with them, sports, middle-school scouts, Team Trouble, Starter Town, voyaging across the sea, and a hyper-neon cyber dystopia (with digital Kingdo!).
As Al and Ben and Marc goofed off about pretzels or olives or something, I raised my little hand. Boom! My idea: Kingdomon as religion. That’s right! We’re busting out the ancient temples to the Kingdo-gods! No one tell us they are just adorable animals because we are about to take this way too seriously.
And when we’re done with this kingdom? I’m not worried we won’t have another idea. There’s always another Kingdom.
The air hums with energy as the sun sets the sky afire with pink and red. Classic 80’s tunes blast from the stereo of a passing convertible. The waves lap the sand in a steady rhythm. But all is not well in the beachside town of Santa Teresa, and the task of uncovering the truth falls on our Detective Pasquale (played by Morgan), his Partner Billy (Fred), his Flame Esperanza (Caroline), and of course his Hat (me, Marc).
It’s a classic game of Fedora Noir, quick, fun, and full of betrayal. Not to mention some great Hat one-liners.
Our game opened (and would later close) with Pasquale alone on an empty street, looking out at the ocean and thinking deep thoughts. We then cut to a case in progress, where we learned that Billy was an intern (Partner: “Will I be getting paid for this?” Detective: “Of course.” Hat: “Absolutely not.”) and the actual go-getter of the operation, while Pasquale was a lazy layabout who let other people do his work for him. They actually made a great team, and when a new threat arose in town, they were on the case. Of course, Pasquale also had to contend with his former lover Esperanza, who wanted to get back together. Her past betrayals had hurt him too much to allow that to happen. Then someone went missing and the case landed in Pasquale’s lap. After a lot of following people around, getting accosted by drug dealers, and roughing up thugs, the climactic finale saw Pasquale and Billy sneak aboard a huge yacht and discover Esperanza at the heart of the crime ring. They got to leave with their lives, but not much else: Pasquale had to drop the case and walk away, tail between his legs.
There are many things that make Fedora Noir work well. First is the dynamic between the Detective and the Hat. Playing these characters is a joy because it’s basically tag-team storytelling. During this game, I’d suggest something the Detective should do, and Morgan would immediately and deliberately not do that thing. It created a lot of hilarious moments, but it can also make some serious dramatic tension when the Detective knows something but isn’t saying it aloud.
Second is the pacing. The game is set up in a number of chapters, and each one is carefully crafted to move the story forward just enough to keep things going, but not so fast that we don’t have time to learn about our characters — who are, in fact, the true focus of the story. In our game, every act fed into the next, and by the end we’d told a cohesive story almost effortlessly.
Third is the characters. As I mentioned, the dynamic between the Detective and Hat is good stuff, but the conflicted relationships with the Partner and Flame also add a lot of drama. In our game, the Partner was optimistic, competent, and big source of comic relief, while the Flame was very much the femme fatale, offering the Detective a chance to make it big if he’d only compromise his morals.