Haberdashery

(Written by Caroline)

  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Development was further complicated by the fact that it was a pre-existing, unpublished game.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.

Some of the other locations include a necromancy school, the suburbs, and a lunar base
Some of the other locations include a necromancy school, the suburbs, and a lunar base

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. 

The Flame chooses one prompt for chapter 3, then frames a scene.
The Flame chooses one prompt for chapter 3, then frames a scene.

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.

And More

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

Fedora Noir is on Kickstarter for one more week.

Sunset in Santa Teresa

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).

fedora noir susnset in santa teresa

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.

Fedora Noir is on Kickstarter for one more week. It’s easy to play online (like we did in this game) and perfect for a short, one-shot gaming session. I hope you’ll check it out! 

Posted by Marc

My Haven for a Hat

(posted by Caroline)

  I would rather hide under a rock than talk about my own games. I’m just very shy and busy (hello parenting). But! Getting ready for the Fedora Noir kickstarter pretty much exactly 7 years after I did the Downfall kickstarter got me comparing the two games and thinking about my own journey as a game designer.

Downfall and Fedora Noir are very different games. In Downfall, you lovingly create a world that you know is doomed to destroy itself. It’s a game about the macro reflected into the micro — we see a doomed civilization reflected in its doomed Hero. It’s typically pretty epic stuff. Fedora Noir, on the other hand, is very focused on small-scale conflicts, like the tension between a detective and the people who care for them (or used to, anyway). As different as they are, both games are stories that focus on a single character. 

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I play and design GMless games because I love sharing narrative control with my fellow players. The way that our different perspectives and voices pull and weave a story together constantly amazes me. Equally sharing authority over the story is, to me, what makes story gaming so wonderful. That’s an easy thing to do in an ensemble game, where no one character is the main one. We just take turns swapping player characters, and every player gets more or less equal screen time. But how do you make one character the main one while still sharing the spotlight between players? 

In Downfall, I decided to tackle that issue by designing the game so that each person takes turns playing each of the roles. We create a nuanced Hero (and Fallen and Pillar) by sharing them. We learn more about a character as another player develops them. Then when it’s our turn, we can change that character or explore them in other ways. When it’s your turn to be the Hero, you are the focus of that round’s scenes. But everyone gets a turn, so over the course of the game we all get to be in the spotlight about evenly.

In Fedora Noir, the rules handle the problem of sharing the spotlight by dividing the role of the main character between two players. One player is the Detective, narrating their speech and actions. And another is their Hat, narrating their inner thoughts. By splitting the character between two roles, we balance the stage time for players while giving the character a ton of depth, not to mention dramatic irony.

fedora noir kickstarter icon city 2

The other two roles — the Partner and the Flame — are defined by their complicated relationships to the Detective. Even when the Partner or Flame frame a scene, it’s about the Detective and their relationships. When you play the Partner or the Flame, you’re a supporting character, but you also drive the central conflicts within the game. 

The game pushes you towards intimate conversations with conflicting motivations, and by focusing on one character split between two players, we intensify the drama. A conversation between the Flame and the Detective about what their future holds is made more dramatic when we hear the Hat’s true feelings… and then see the Detective do something else. 

In Downfall, we explore how the Hero changes and is changed by their world… but in Fedora Noir we see how the Detective is challenged by their relationships and their own inner voice, the Hat.

Fedora Noir is on Kickstarter from July 20-August 10, 2021. The video is hella embarrassing (but also kind of great).