Dead of Night

It was the Post Boxing Day Con yesterday, a small house con hosted by steve_hix. I arrived in the late afternoon and ran Beneath the Full Moon for exiledinpn, catnip_mouse and someone called Emma that is otherwise unknown to me. It was okay, and I think showed me again that the Jenga tower does most of the GMing work.

After dinner, rpgactionfigure ran Dead of Night for steve_hix and myself. We tossed around only a couple of ideas before settling on a James Ellroy-style ’50s Los Angeles. I’ve never actually read any Ellroy, but I’m familiar enough with Film Noir and the genre he’s operating in generally.

I decided to play Detective Jeremy Kraven, first generation American Pole. A vice cop fully immersed in the seedy world of alcohol, drugs and violence. Corrupt, but with a kind of psychotic paternity for the failed actresses and whores of LA.

Steve went for a black WWII veteran, the smart and ambitious Detective Lee Tyson. A man walking a hard road in discrimination-ridden LA. Definitely the “good” cop of the pair, and with the social skills you’d expect.

We decided that while our guys were Vice, that we’d butt into Homocide’s business and solve the crimes that were the “plot” of our game. The victim was a young aspiring actress, who died horribly in her one room apartment.

really sold the scene expertly: details were all there, and all stomach-churning. The casual indifference of the homocide cops outside and the apparent pointlessness of the crime really evoked a bleak perspective on the world. I knew at that stage that we were playing a no-holds-barred game. Brutal.

We hit her local: a run-down dive called the “Red Parrot”. A place that 20 years ago might have attracted the lower echelons of Hollywood glamour, but hadn’t been painted since. The bouncer took exception to Tyson, and after a brief bit of “diplomacy”, Kraven lost his cool and beat the shit out of him. It was thus established that as racist a fucker as Kraven is, he won’t brook disrespect to his partner.

Inside Tyson stops to make a call to his wife just letting her know he’s working especially late. Kraven goes over to the bartender – a contact of his, to ask questions about the dead girl. Turns out she’s been seen with and MGM exec Lenny Bronski. Naturally, we decide that’s where we’ve got to roll.

But outside is a low-rent press photographer, who snaps us exchanging a last hostile glare with the bouncer. We go over and double-team him. Kraven frightens him while Tyson acts all reasonable. Kraven tosses his car and finds some dope, while Tyson begins exposing his night’s work. Under our combined ministrations, he tells us that the vic was last seen not with an MGM nice-guy, but pornographer Vinnie Milano, who didn’t go in, only dropped her off.

Tyson concludes that’s the guy we need to talk to first thing in the morning. Kraven emotionally blackmails Tyson into going that night with a line about explaining to his daughter how he let a murderer get away. Utterly ruthless in his pursuit of the killer.

We drive to Milano’s place in the hills – a flash joint for a low-life. The gate’s open, the door too. We enter, guns drawn, being stealthy. Tyson is jumped by someone weilding a fire poker, and crumples under a blow to the head. Kraven gets two bullets into the guy who runs off. A more thorough search of the grounds finds Milano’s mutilated corpse floating in his pool. Face all but destroyed, genitals removed – pretty grisly stuff. Inside we find another “aspiring actress” hiding in a closet, afraid for her life.

While Tyson gets rudimentary bandaging and gets some basic information about the killer from the girl, Kraven goes door-knocking looking for a better description of the fleeing man.

And then they’re summoned to talk to their boss. The captain is not pleased with his two vice detectives getting involved in a Homocide case. This was a pretty full-on scene, starting off reasonably civil and escalating to the point where Kraven and the Captain are having a shouting match, and Kraven storms out. Then the Captain offers Tyson a deal: a promotion for digging up dirt on Kraven and putting him away.

Woah.

Tyson and Kraven decide to make one last stop for the night, to a back-alley doctor. The kind of doctor that would take two bullets out of a man and not ask too many questions. I was again impressed with Malcolm’s economical but effective description of the doctor’s surgery: a place right out of a horror movie. We kindly ask that if a patient matching the description comes in that he sedate the guy then call us, and we warn him that this is one dangerous out of control psychopath.

Kraven goes out into the red light district, picks up a hooker and some booze and goes back to his place. Tyson’s not so lucky: his wife is not pleased that’s he’s coming home at 2AM with a cut open head. This was another very full-on scene, showing a new side to Tyson: his misogyny. This really rammed home the ambitions partly revealed in his discussion with the captain too, but the dynamic with his wife was very complex. He talked down to her, was uncompromising: a different persona to what he presented the rest of the world.

And then our characters got to sleep. Tyson on the couch, Kraven at a reasonable rate per hour.

In the morning we went to touch base with our doctor friend, and found him badly messed up. But, the killer had left a clue: a ripped photograph of a different woman.

We went and rumbled the photographer we’d encountered the night before, hoping he could identify the woman. It was another very confrontational scene, which was going poorly for the character. He refused to help and began threatening Kraven with exposure, claiming to have proof of his corruption. Kraven tried to intimidate him, until he also made a racial slur about Tyson, when Kraven lost his temper and knocked him to the ground. The two detectives left, but after a discussion outside Tyson went back in. He offered assistance in bringing Kraven down for the information about the girl in the new photograph, and left with that information.

And that was all we had time for. It was 11:30, and interest was peaking, but mental, emotional and physical energy was waning. We called it there, all satisfied that while we’d only really scratched the surface of the characters and plot but, that the surface had been well worthwhile investigating.

As a game summary, it’s been very easy to recount the core events, though some minor things have been elided for clarity. What’s harder to describe is the intensive character focus that very quickly developed. The plot was interesting, but we were all much more interested in who the characters were, how they related, and what they’d do. There was a lot of quite complex activity and the ambiguous relationship between the racist Kraven and the ambitious Tyson was very interesting.

As a showcase for Dead of Night it was pretty useless I think. I got no sense of how the system should really work, or what kind of game it was. The ability to use “survival points” to drive the story is simply analogous in my experience to a large number of other system tools, and “tension” as a check and balance on GM Fiat was unusual, but I’m not too sure how it compares to GM-determined difficulties generally. From my side of the table, it felt like a largely traditional gaming experience with an increasingly strong interest in the characters. While we as players could buy clues with our survival points, there was a strong feeling during and afterward that this only affected the crime-solving, which was not really the thing of central interest, so it never disturbed my immersion.

This was a truly great roleplaying experience. clearly understood the dramatic needs of the players and characters and was able to extemporize and improvise sufficiently well to give the game a realistic feel while still meeting those needs. The characterization was strong too: all NPCs were clear and distinct, despite the scottish accent. 🙂

Obviously, as the relentless analyser, I’m keen to dissect the experience to see why it worked so well. I think there were two key things; the first was that the genre discussion up front was really clear in all our minds, we achieved the “same page” before beginning play, so could really get straight into it. As players we were allowed limited authorial input (more than in a really traditional game, but less than most Indie games), which allowed us to tweak enough stuff to feel in control and to frame our characters as we wanted and keep the page clear in everyone’s mind.

Secondly, nobody shied away or held back: there was that trust at the table that we were on the same page, and could handle whatever came up as players, however out of depth our characters might get. So there was permission at the table, established by the genre discussion, to play our dysfunctional characters to the hilt. I think that the vividness of the brutality in the first scene really cemented that. A lot of GMs would have been squeemish, and I think we’d have ended up playing a half-caste but acceptable game rather than a really good one.

In short, it combined all the elements that you need for a great game. Everyone on the same page. Everyone really giving 100% energy, focus and commitment. Enough story drive to prevent the game stalling. And deeply flawed characters we cared about anyway, making tough decisions in a morally complex world. I want more of this! 🙂

I think this was only my second experienced playing with , the first being a playtest for Steve’s short-lived Soth, the game of comic cult horror.

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2 Responses to Dead of Night

  1. steve_hix says:

    I agree. Great game.

    If I wasn’t so busy lugging boxes down to my new flat, I’d write more. In the mean-time, bullet-points:

    + It took me a while to get into Tyson’s head. As the game went on, I increasingly felt that he couldn’t be as noble as I was presenting him. That’s a given in Ellroy’s world. The scene with his wife shifted the context so markedly (from professional to personal) that it felt like the perfect opportunity to let things get nastier.

    + Playing the first African-American detective in the LAPD sort of felt like a stunt when I proposed it. As we played, I felt we really got to some sort of truth (via fiction) about what it must have been like for the first guy to have been in that position.

    + I enjoyed being able to introduce clues via the survival points.

    + Reading the rules, there are a couple of things that might have made a difference – like how a player can’t make two conflict checks in a row. I’m thinking of how Kraven shot at the fleeing killer a couple of times.

    Great playing with you, Mash. And you, Malc, if you’re reading.

  2. Yeah, there were likely big chunks of system that I missed. In my defence, it’s been a year since I facilitated DoN. Still, I’m pretty sure there are important but subtle things that would have made a difference, as Steve points out.

    Getting into the mindset of using DoN for a game that was horrific, but not traditional ‘horror’ was actually a bit more difficult than anticipated. It’s therefore good to hear that it was an enjoyable gaming experience for everyone round the table.

    With benefit of hindsight, things I would have done differently:

    Read the damn book again! The core mechanics are ultra-simple, but as previously mentioned, there are subtlties which make a difference.

    Take five minutes to detail a few of the NPCs that would be encountered, or at least make up some ‘NPC blanks’ that had attribute pairs and then just scribble the name at the top when it comes to be used.

    Press for the game to have a more definite ‘horror’ theme. This is where DoN works best and having that definite strand of horror would showcase the way the game works a lot better. Now, I don’t for a moment mean that the game as it went wasn’t excellent, but it was different for what I expected when we sat down to play.

    Read the damn book again. I believe this is worth mentioning twice. I did kind of lapse back into old habits of glossing over systemic failings with evocative description (a holdover from the old “System? Who cares about the system!” days).

    Still, it was a really enjoyable game.

    Cheers
    Malc

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