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I enjoy the youtube channel Game Designer’s Toolkit. Mark Brown just released an episode which is about how designers can encourage gamers to play a game a particular way (eschewing optimal but boring grind tactics for example). I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about how I’ve tried to design for this in Teen Noir.

The core structure in Teen Noir is the scene. In a lot of other games, there is no inherent ‘cost’ in framing a scene. Any player can frame as many scenes as they like, or one player can frame as many scenes as they like, or players frame in a particular order and they follow that order as many times as they like. There’s no ‘cost’ in game, there’s only a cost in that each scene takes time.

Fiasco, as a contrary example, has a scene economy. Every player gets four ‘goes’ (whether that means framing or resolving) and that’s it.

As in Fiasco, in Teen Noir I wanted there to be some mechanical weight to the scene and so, for each scene, the player has to play a card from their hand. While I also use this to set the tone of the scene, we associate playing a card with making progress within a game and personal empowerment. We play cards to win certain games.

As I'm playing Teen Noir I feel I'm making a decision by selecting a card from my hand and making progress by playing it. My reward for playing it is the empowerment of framing the scene and being the first person character within it. But then, at the end of the scene, I have to place the card somewhere: on the mystery, on their lifepath or a third option.

This is where I get to the point of the video. The way I want people to play Teen Noir is to add to the mystery and add to their lifepaths, but I do not wish to force them to do so. If I forced them to play to one of these two, it would devalue them both; scenes that didn’t include content for either would be shoehorned into them, diluting their worth. So instead, if neither mystery or lifepath is suitable, I give them a third option that I don’t really want them to take.

Given that all three options are available, how does Teen Noir discourage the third option? By having the player put the card back in the deck. If playing a card can feel like making progressing, putting a card back in the deck and drawing a new one can feel like stalling. This card (which is now associated with the scene) doesn’t get to stay on the table, it goes back in the deck so that another player (most likely) can have a shot with it. The evidence of the scene is gone.

I get my new card, which is fine, I’m not stuck, but I definitely feel that I haven’t contributed to the progression of the game, irrespective of what actually happened in the scene.

I can absolutely play Teen Noir like a video gamer playing an optimised but dull strategy, never exposing my character to risk, never adding to the mystery, never adding or shutting off lifepaths, never trusting another. But the physical action I’m performing is just cycling my cards from the deck to my hand and back to the deck again, never adding to the cards on the table, never reducing the cards in the deck, and leaving me feeling like I’m not contributing to the game.
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So yesterday I explained the basics of the game to my wife. I had just started and she stopped me and said "Wait, you made a game about quinoa?"

I hestitated a moment and then realised what happened.
"No," I replied "Not quinoa, Teen Noir"

(Filed under things I failed to consider when renaming this project...)
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The gaming lineage of Teen Noir
(aka an inventory of theft)
Note, I’m not saying that these are the only games that use this particular mechanic, I’m just saying this is where I took it from

I list the game as a whole as based on Swords Without Master Tonal setting & resolution, Different scenes, Characters from objects
Atlas Reckoning a deck of playing cards and swapping cards
Cthulhu Dark single d6 resolution
Dog Eat Dog the most innocent teen is the first spotlight player after the facilitator (inspired by the richest player plays the authority)
Fiasco the concept of playsets
Microscope choosing tones and excluding content (the palette)
Ribbon Drive lifepaths / differing futures
The GMless Mystery Explainer the mystery map
The Quiet Year allowing different visions of the community
The Tavern writing on playing cards

Finally, the concept of defining the community by the code of silence came from various reports of the investigation and arrests made La Vernia High School from March 2017.
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Teen Noir is now available on DriveThru, designed by myself and with striking cover art by Aviv Or.

Why should I, jaded roleplayer with more games than I could ever play, care?
Here's some things that may catch your interest:
- Players create their teen's community based on its code of silence: who sets it, who enforces it, who suffers under it, who resists it
- Each teen has a sin, derived from a noir tone: violence, lust, greed or obsession
- Each scene begins with a player describing their teen’s internal monologue hardboiled detective style
- It's a GMless game which encourages a collaborative development of a central mystery
- One teen is guilty, one of them takes the fall for the crime. They're rarely the same person.

It says it's a bit like Veronica Mars?
Yeah, but here the main characters are investigating because the community’s suspicion is falling on them.

So it's a bit like Riverdale?
Yeah, but more noir and less soap. Imagine Archie actually was responsible for what happened and Betty ended up taking the fall for it.

If it’s teenagers are there hot, sexy times?
That’s down to the players, but there are rules where, if one teen reaches out to or trusts another, they swap cards but leave them face down. Neither teen knows yet whether the other is screwing them over.

And might there be a version in the future where I get to play a teenager who’s caught in a downward spiral of broken friendships and community suspicion, who’s also a supernatural monster having an identity crisis?
Ermm… maybe?

Seriously, I am offering any folk who buy the game and post me their thoughts or an AP a discount on any future expanded versions as a thank you for their time.

If you want to try before you buy, then you can download a free rules summary and character sheet here

Look forward to an audio version of the rules coming before the end of the year and playsets with pre-gens that will get into the drama all the quicker.

Any questions, hit me up!
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Proofibg the ashcan rules for Concrete Cow.
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Teen Noir will (hopefully) have it's final alpha playtest this Saturday at Concrete Cow. After incorporating any feedback from that, I'll be releasing an ashcan playtest version for an open beta.
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Teen Noir character creation examples
Today's object: a yellow highlighter
Highlighters are bright so he's smart. They're used to mark books, implies our teen is more of a student. He's well prepared to study, so maybe an A grade student, maybe taking more advanced classes with older kids. Highlighters are used to draw attention to what's important so he's observant, maybe a bit of a know-it-all, maybe draws attention to things that others want to keep quiet and gets in trouble that way. Highlighters are made out of a tough plastic, so maybe he has a tough outer shell. They also eventually run out and are tossed away. Maybe this is an inner fear of falling behind and washing out of his advanced classes, but maybe this is also a recent relationship where it ran its course and he feels dumped.

So, I have Derek Bright, an honours student from a professional family. He's been moved into more advanced classes with older kids and so is kinda separated from his own age group. His social life hinged upon his relationship with his girlfriend, but they've recently broken up and so he's more adrift. He sees his future as beyond the town, wants to go away to college, but knows that he's competiting with kids like in across the country. His parents are supportive and both respected professionals in town. He's also seen something he shouldn't have and bad people are worried that he's going to talk.

For Derek's sin, I pick Diamonds (Obsession) again. In this case, it's an obsession with being smarter, being better than everyone else.

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Teen Noir character creation examples
This week I'll be posting example character creations. In Teen Noir I begin by thinking of an object I associate with being a teenager and riff off that.
Today's object: a double chocolate milkshake.
I'm going to start with a guy. It's a social drink, so someone with a lot of friends, it's frothy so he's upbeat, it's creamy so he's smooth. He's maybe not the brightest but he's comforting. He's maybe a bit boyish, not too intense, easily amused, but a bit shallow. He's good for you in the short term, but maybe not so good in the long term. The kinda guy who builds dependency. Maybe a casual drug user. Maybe an affluent background so his future is taken care of. Maybe he just fills his day with ephemera and does the same to anyone he's with. Some people have a bad reaction to him, but that's their problem.

So I have Sam Washington, a slacker party guy who's privileged but not a dick about it. He'll party with whoever he can find and - if you hang around for too long - your life can be one long party all the way until the end of high school. I like the idea that his parents actually don't give him a hard time about it, so are maybe musicians. They front a rock band that was big in the late 70s and they still earn royalties and do the occasional tour - leaving Sam with plenty of time with a big party pad at his disposal.

For Sam's sin, I pick the Diamonds suit (Obsession). It's easy to pick the casual drug usage as the beginning of a slippery slope. Maybe. But I also like the idea that his parents were an epic love story in rock music history of which he is a product and he struggles with feeling that he should have something or someone equally epic in his life.
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The internal monologue in Teen Noir
Writing in the first person is so synonymous with american detective fiction and noir as to be cliché. The use of first person is designed to immerse the reader in the character, they are not allowed to float above the story in the third person they must see it from the protagonist's eyes and know their innermost thoughts and feelings. In hardboiled fiction it establishes trust between the reader and the detective - especially important in a world where nothing else can be trusted.

In noir, the protagonist is often the culprit and so the use of the first person is perverted in a sense. We are shown inside their minds not to trust them, but as an attempt to understand them. Shakespeare seeks the same effect with the uae of soliloquies. Without this peek into their minds, the protagonists of noir may be seen as simple monsters. Instead, with the first person, we may see their humanity and perhaps a glimpse of our own.

In the earlier version of the game, I adopted an aspect of first person from the source material Riverdale. Jughead acts as a future narrator, his voice-overs seeking to explain what we had just seen and hint at further developments to come. In this way, I had players do the same for their scene transitions; at the end of each scene the next spotlight player summed up the prior scene from the view of their character on the future and hinted at what was to come.

In reviews Jughead's voiceovers were criticised as repitative and vague, as phony musings regurgitating the same sentiments about shame and guilt and the corruption behind the wholesome façade of the town. In playtesting, this rule of the future narrator suffered the same way. Players used it to further a sense of menace, but it was always nebulous, hinting at great revelations that might be made but never making them.

As I did my research, I realised what both I and Riverdale has done wrong. The first person narrative in detective and noir is intended to immerse the audience in a character, to show us their mind and way of thinking in the present. But I and Riverdale were using it to pull the audience out of the scene, to float above the story and try to guess how it might go.

In Teen Noir I've corrected this. Now the rule is that each spotlight player has to frame their scenes in the first person and should include what they've been doing, how they're feeling and why they're there (this is similar to the prep players do for scenes in Microscope). This can continue into the scene with the spotlight player encouraged to add their internal narrative while the other players are limited to what their characters say and do.

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The guilty and the punished in Teen Noir
Playtesting the earlier version of the game (A Town With Pep) revealed a problem that was evident in its source material Riverdale. While the teens were all connected to the mystery, none of them really had any motivation to investigate it and their attempts to do so felt forced. And while the mystery was revealed and explained, it didn't have a transformative effect upon the teens' lives.

As I learned more about noir, I realised what was missing: guilt. In the hardboiled american detective genre the protagonist is involved in the mystery because it's their job to investigate it. In noir, the protagonist is involved in the mystery mostly because they're the suspect or the culprit.

Teen Noir has two mechanisms to represent this: one to determine who's the culprit and one to determine who's the suspect, both driven from the card deck.

Remember I wrote that, for a lifepath scene, the spotlight player plays the scene card onto their own character?

The suspect is the teen whose player has played the highest combined value of cards on their character.

This means that, at the beginning of the game, none of the teens are suspect. If a player wants to make their teen a suspect, they can play onto their character. If not, they can hang back and have a social or a mystery scene. This continues through the game and the suspect can shift between different teens.

Tying this to the lifepath scene means that the more a teen is suspected, the more we at first see the potential of their future and then later we see it being stripped away.

When any player plays their fourth card on their character their teen's lifepaths are gone and takes the punishment for the crime. Whether they are the culprit or not.

Right at the beginning of the game, the players prepare the card deck with the tones they want. The four aces are removed and one of them is randomly shuffled back into the remainder of the deck after everyone has taken their starting hand. Whoever draws the ace later in the game is the culprit and they cannot trade away nor play that card until the end of the game - after the suspect has been punished - when they finally reveal their involvement and anything of the mystery that remains to be explained.

No one knows at the start whether their character is guilty, but being suspected as being guilty is each player's choice as to where they wish to play.

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