Mean Streets
A game review by S. John Ross

Price: $7.95
Components: 58 page PDF Document
Designer: Mark Bruno
Publisher: Deep7

". . . Mean Streets has a lot of solid info on what life was like in America in the 40s, as well as in NYC during the early part of that decade. We've tried to make the city an integral part of the game . . . "

- Mark Bruno, on RPGnet

Mean Streets is a simple, intuitive game of film noir-inspired crime drama by Mark Bruno. It's a breezy read that I polished off in a single sitting over a cup of coffee (no need for a refill) weighing in at a slim 56 pages, including the character sheet at the rear of the book. Mean Streets is published in PDF format and sells for the very modest price of $7.95.

There's little to hold attention in the Introduction, so the book begins with Character Creation in Chapter Two. Mean Streets doesn't have a whole-cloth game system; it uses the XPG system from Deep7, a refreshingly gimmick-free setup rooted in sound, proven notions: a short list of meaningful stats, skill-based character definition, and personal traits (called "Assets" and "Liabilities" here, but feel free to swap in your favorite synonyms) and behavior tags to round things out. A few derived stats determine how well your character can avoid injury and similar basics. Character creation is a clean "shopping list" affair.

There's a very brief mention of the differences between men and women in the period of the game (which is set in New York City by default, in the early 1940s), which is the only time social issues are raised by Mean Streets. Ethnicity, for example, is entirely sidestepped as a factor in character generation. GMs who prefer a grittier, more historical approach to their drama might find this unsatisfying, but I suppose there are just as many that will prefer the game's slightly sanitized approach. The chapter closes with a good selection of basic character ideas.

Chapter Three: Game Mechanics, is brief and simple. The game works on an easy rollunder system using 2d6, combined stats and skills, and modifiers when needed. Gimmicks don't impress me, so this chapter was pretty satisfying. There are a few oddities here and there, though: fistfights don't get a section or even a mention - the rules for fists are hidden in the previous chapter's skill list. Similarly, the section on non-lethal attacks, if taken literally, excludes barehanded attempts. Damage is a very basic matter of compared margins of success modified by weapon type, and wounds are taken in wound levels - again, no gimmicks to distract, no needless bells and whistles. No illustrative examples of play, either - but the game seems to assume (perhaps wisely) that only experienced gamers are going to be reading. The chapter closes with very brief (half a page) rules for chasing and crashing cars.

So far, so good. Mean Streets is, at this stage, worlds better than Noir from Archon games. Where Noir ponces and dances ridiculously trying to be stylish (and ending up clownish and pathetic), Mean Streets is written with restraint and basic honesty. While author Bruno has a few writing weaknesses common to relative newcomers, he doesn't ponce and he doesn't pose.

In Chapter Four, however, Mean Streets begins to lose a lot of ground. While Noir took the cowardly approach of setting the game in a fantasy city tied to no particular decade, Mean Streets has nobler aspirations, and is explicit in its understanding that setting and time are vital to this kind of gaming. Hence, the New York City setting. Chapter Four: New York City, is the GM's resource for New York and for the 1940s in general.

With nine pages of text and two pages of NPC stats, it does nearly as well as might be expected, but the end result is that the reader could spend ten minutes in Google and learn much more about the 1940s, and much more about New York City. If ignoring ethnicity was a stylistic choice in character creation, it's just an inexplicable omission here, in a chapter that gives a paragraph to Chinatown but never even mentions Little Italy. Harlem gets a single line to itself, and is mentioned three other times in passing.

It's not just ethnic neighborhoods that are missed, though: Greenwich Village has been a distinctive part of Manhattan since before the 1920s (back in the day of Mabel Dodge and Hippolyte Havel), but it's never mentioned at all . . . In fact, The entire Manhattan entry is two paragraphs long.

So, while Mean Streets is built on the understanding that setting matters, no setting worth speaking of is really provided. The one-page New York City timeline omits even the most vital aspects of the city's mob histories.

The mob does, however, get more coverage than any other aspect of New York - two pages and change running down the list of major crime families. But while mob-specific ranks are tossed here and there with a casual hand, they're never explained (the game has no glossary of any kind, not even the obligatory primer on period slang). Comparably, no discussion is given to the structure of the police department. The New York chapter closes with game-stats for the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and the four principal crime bosses.

Chapter Five: Mastering Noir, is the GMing chapter, and shines a little brighter than the New York material. This chapter is a simple introduction to some of the fundamental questions that GMs will need to consider to write and present adventures, along with one or two stabs at answers. It's lightweight, and again the presumption seems to be that only experienced GMs, preferably those experienced with the genre, will be the readers. Complete newcomers will probably find it a useful primer, but it's mostly a summary, with very little provided in the way of method.

Chapter Six - "A Tangled Web" - is much more delightful than either of the previous chapters - a complete adventure that really is complete. This is no featherweight three-page magazine adventure, but a respectably fleshed-out murder story that looks to be four, maybe five thousand words. The NPCs are interesting, the scenes are pretty well set, and the most important story avenues are explored. Certainly, I can think of a dozen or more well-regarded RPGs with weaker and thinner sample adventures in them. This one is based directly and explicitly on Fritz Lang's The Big Heat, which may be a mild licensing faux pas (the character names, at least, have been changed), but you can't go wrong by sticking to quality inspiration. A Tangled Web lacks the subtle themes of the film that inspired it, and really does require a strong police presence among the player characters despite weak protests to the contrary, but it's a good little adventure and probably the best bargain in the package. The illustrations here are poor, but not poor enough to distract.

Appendix A is a very short list of prices for services and gear. The soup is thin here, too - only five models of car are listed, and it would be easy to imagine a more representative sampling (or perhaps better still, a more general listing of styles, if no room was available for more specific models). This appendix also includes the weapon stats (a chair does twice as much damage as a length of lead pipe or a hatchet, and a whip is described as "used primarily for entanglement," but no rules for entangling with whips can be found in Mean Streets).

The book has no Bibliography, but it does have Appendix B - descriptions of fifteen of the author's favorite films noir. The descriptions are limited to plot summaries (including several quoted verbatim, without apparent permission, from the Internet Movie Database) with no ties provided to gameplay.

Two pages of pre-made NPC stats follow - a useful time-saving feature that even a few very good games forget to include. It was a welcome sight, here.

A historical map of the New York area ends the appendices. This is the only map of New York provided with Mean Streets, and it is very general (Manhattan is a gridded smudge at one end; the bulk is given over to the western half of Long Island). No key is provided to match locations mentioned in the New York City chapter to areas shown on the map.

And the character sheet looks fine. So where does that leave us? Well, it means we're at the end of the book, and there's no index.

I celebrate Mean Streets because it is, with few exceptions, a dramatically better effort than Noir was, but it would still be an exaggeration to call Mean Streets a professional title. In fact, Noir's main failing in my eyes - the cowardly resort to a fantasy setting - created a more fleshed out and compelling city than the real-life New York glanced at in this game.

All that said, I still kind of like the little game . . . Because it is, after all, a little game, and it would be unfair to judge it too harshly as if it were a big one. And with such a modest price-tag (two drinks at Starbucks will cost you more, if you get the ones with enough caramel to cover up how cheap the coffee is), the sample adventure alone may be worth the price of admission to some Game Masters. As with many modern RPGs, Mean Streets is more of a "starter kit" than a game, with several supplements already in production to flesh it out. With a few of those on the table, it may grow into a very fine game indeed. For now, it's probably still fair to say that you get $7.95 worth of material. To make that material into a game of film noir style set in 1943 New York will take more elbow grease than the game promises . . . But is that a really cool piece of art on the cover, or what?

This page is Copyright ©2002 by S. John Ross

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