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Hard City Evokes The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep

A film noir detective roleplaying game


For many long time gamers, Osprey Publishing will always be known as the company with the historical painting guides on the squeaky metal rack stuck in the corner of the friendly local gaming store. But they’ve been publishing actual games for quite a few years now, including the sleeper hit Gaslands. They recently hired designer Nathan Russell to create Hard City, an RPG inspired by films noir like The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. As this book combines one of my favorite game designers with one of my favorite genres, I picked it up for myself as a late holiday gift with some of the gift cards I inevitably receive from my relatives unsure of what to buy the nerdiest member of their family tree. Is this game the stuff dreams are made of? Let’s play to find out.

Hard City comes in a hardcover digest size book with a print edition that looks like the detective novels that inspired its creation. Artist Luis F. Sans strikes the perfect tone between the lurid paperbacks from the period and the murky shadows of the films in which the game is set. The first half of the book explains the rules of the game with the second half full of advice on how to run the genre and examples of city elements that can be sprinkled into the tales told by this game. The game rounds out with a case that illustrates how to generate a web of clues for players to explore. Chances are if you’ve run an investigative game like this before you’re seen most of this but it’s always a good thing to get a refresher from time to time.

The system most closely resembles Blades In The Dark. When a player attempts an action, they roll a handful of six sided dice based on how many of their character traits apply. The highest die rolled determines what happens. A six is a full success, two sixes or more is a critical success, a four or five is a success with consequence, three or less is a failure and one is a botch. The main difference from Blades In The Dark are Danger Dice that cancel out the numbers they roll on the player dice. These dice are added for difficulty or to reflect NPC traits that might counter player action. Danger Dice serve a similar function to potency and positioning while being a bit more concrete for tables that don’t want to debate those ideas.

Much of this is unchanged from Neon City Overdrive, his cyberpunk version of these rules that have become my favorite way to run Shadowrun stories without using Shadowrun rules systems. But here they are explained a little more clearly and even streamlined a bit. Every challenge to the players, be it a corrupt cop to a roaring storm the night of the big heist, is framed as a challenge with tags that can generate Danger Dice depending on the players’ plan and Grit to reflect the number of successes required to take out the challenge. The book talks about common action in this style of game and suggests consequences for those actions ranging from simple narrative fallout to taking conditions that can add Danger Dice to follow up rolls like being Angry. Fans of other games using this system will find more traits and other resources to use here.

This is also the rare historical game without any sort of supernatural twist. Granted, emulating film noir may be a stretch of the word “historical” but there are no hidden wizards or secret histories here. As a fan of Cast A Deadly Spell, I might consider adding something like that if the mood strikes, but playing a game without the expectations of science fiction or fantasy trappings also appeals. It helps the game stand out in a hobby where the overwhelming majority of games have some sort of magic, elves or spaceships.

Hard City throws players into a town without pity and expects them to light a match and walk down some hard streets. It’s a great game for fans of mysteries, cyberpunk and black and white movies.

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Von Ether

Great review, I think Osprey deserves of a more spotlight for their RPGs. I get that they are in a funny space of being a small publisher that doesn't draw much press like an indie darling nor a gaming juggernaut.

In fact, they should get massive props for however they managed their survival. Most people running a historical painting guide publishing company would not have pivoted the way they did into being a gaming publisher. I would have figured they would have either blamed the world leaving them behind or just shut down the business as something more profitable came along (which happens at all levels of the industry much more than you think.)
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This sounds like a decent game, but I can just strip the "Cthulhu" out of Call or Trail. I do appreciate an actual "pure historical" game being on the market, at least.


Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
I'd love to run a Noir game set in 1930s in a smaller isolated city like Spokane WA. Something with a mix of city and rural.
Hard City would very much like to join you on that journey. :)

This sounds like a decent game, but I can just strip the "Cthulhu" out of Call or Trail. I do appreciate an actual "pure historical" game being on the market, at least.
You definitely could. But Hard City is built on the author’s Freeform Universal chassis, and like his earlier game Neon City Overdrive, it conveys a tremendous amount of ambience through its simple mechanics. It’s as much its own thing as those games are theirs. Worth a look, at the very least.

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