A man crouched there on the fire escape, looking in through the glass and lace curtain. He was a thick-featured dark man whose size identified him as Babe McCloor. The muzzle of a big black automatic was touching the glass in front of him. He had tapped the glass with it to catch our attention.

He had our attention.

- Fly Paper
Dashiell Hammett

The Official Fly From Evil FAQ
by S. John Ross; FAQ Version 1.22, August 2013

Please keep in mind that, since the game is still in (the latter stages of) its development, any detail can change. Everything is fluid until the final book is released. That said, though, this should give you a good idea of where I'm going with it.
Is there an official release date?

Nope. As a matter of company policy, no Cumberland title gets a release date until it's essentially finished. There's still drafting to be done, maps to be done, playtest to be done. I've also never done production, layout and indexing on a project this size, and I intend a superb index. I'd rather meet that goal, than self-apply pressure to meet a premature deadline (see the sample download of Fief or Uresia: Grave of Heaven for the way I do an index).

Is Fly From Evil historical?

Yes. Also, no.

"Yes" in that game's two large "resource sections" - the genre/period sourcebook and the San Francisco city book - are the distilled essence of extensive research. Nothing in either section is the result of invention or guesswork.

"No" in that Fly From Evil is a genre RPG above all. The history is there to enrich the game. Where genre tradition departs from literal fact, so does Fly From Evil.

Where genre tradition takes no stance, though, history fills the gaps, for several reasons. The most important is that "period" drama stripped of context becomes shallow, even silly. If the game were nothing but trenchcoats and fog and wisecracks, it'd be of little use beyond the occasional novelty session or parody. Besides, you hardly need me to write a whole RPG to teach you private eye clichés; you know them already. They're part of the cultural common ground. The genre - the pulp shorts, the novels and the films of the game's period - is a product of its time, and Fly From Evil explores history with that in mind.

To best serve exciting gameplay, Fly From Evil abstracts a few things. The economy, for example, takes a wild ride from the Roaring Twenties through the Depression and into the WWII years, so Fly From Evil adopts a single economic standard, more-or-less stable for game purposes, to keep the price of a handgun or the exchange rate to the Swiss Franc from becoming a 15-page essay on economic history.

If you're still confused, look at games like Call of Cthulhu or GURPS Swashbucklers to see examples of the "historicity level" (both quality of research and appropriate balance of history and genre) I'm shooting for. See also Hero Games' Pulp Hero, both for that, and for some examples of the way I write pulp GMing advice (along with the inimitable Steve Long, of course).

What's the exact setting?

  • Broadly: The United States from 1920 to 1949 (with emphasis on the years from 1925 to 1945, and more emphasis on the 1930s, in particular). The game will provide a lot of resource material for all three decades and for the entire country from the enactment of the Volstead Act to earliest days of the Cold War. The rules support play in those periods with no modifications needed. Pushing it deep into the 1950s would require heavy tinkering and very different kinds of source material, so after 1949 I put on the brakes.
  • Specifically: The game's "home ground" is San Francisco, California in the mid-1930s. When the game benefits from a tight focus, that's where it goes. This also provides a close look at a real period city as an example for GMs who prefer to design a fictional one.
  • Tangentially: There's also a whirlwind tour of the entire globe, focusing on details that (A) provide character backgrounds for immigrant PCs, and (B) provide adventure fodder for interesting travel-capers.

Why San Francisco?

Everything in Fly From Evil is guided by my own tastes as a GM, and that's the short of it, but here's the long: I considered several cities as the game's home in the early days, focusing mostly on the choice between Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. San Francisco won.

Chicago and New York were eliminated early on because, in both cities, organized crime is too large, too powerful, and too well-established to allow player-created gangs to have a lot of maneuvering room without completely ignoring history. On the West Coast, by contrast, organized crime is more Balkanized. There are still mobs and bosses (mostly following the semi-feudal structure that is all but abolished in New York in the early '30s), but nothing on the scale they have back east. In San Francisco, the city government of the time is so corrupt that, essentially, organized crime has no room to privatize. This leaves lots of room for player ambition and GM choice, and I like that. That's point one.

That left me with Los Angeles and San Francisco as the major choices, and, of course, they're each home to great literary private eyes - including Philip Marlowe in Los Angeles and the Continental Op and Sam Spade in San Francisco. So, both are excellent. But Los Angeles, even in the early days of the era, is already seedier and grimier and more evil than I wanted to write about. That level of grime is something I can only take in small doses, and I wanted to make a campaign game - something where I could paint in any colors I wanted. That's San Francisco all over - it's got nasty and grimy, but it's also got romantic and lovely (and it comes by it honestly, unlike Los Angeles, which knows how to fake it). San Francisco has a unique private-nexus-of-the-world flavor that's hard to beat, and extraordinary cultural variety (including the country's most impressive Chinatown, of course, and a massive Italian colony nestled against the waterfront). San Francisco also has a do-your-own thing tradition that speaks to me personally. It is, in short, a city where I felt at home and wanted to campaign (and I'm not about to spend all this time working on a setting that I'm not in love with, am I?) and that's point two.

I'm sure there's a point three, four and five, but points one and two are pretty heavy stuff already.

And besides, I'm a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of GM, so Fly From Evil includes enough to get you started in several other cities, including basic maps and amusing relevant facts to hang adventures or backgrounds on (those mentioned above, plus Philadelphia, Boston, etc).

Will it be PDF-Only?

Absolutely. Cumberland is strictly an electronic outfit. I'll maybe make a print-on-demand edition available as well, but I don't intend to venture into the traditional RPG distribution channels until shortly after hell freezes over, thaws back, and opens a theme park. I might look into licensing the hardcopy rights to a glue-and-paper publisher (in the early days of the game's development, some folks asked me about it) but that's something for after the game is done.

How much will it cost?

I don't know yet. Depends entirely on how the hours add up at the end. The full game package will be priced according to the same inverse-geometric scale I use for every Cumberland title, though.

How big will it be?

Same answer as above, but it will most likely weigh in somewhere between 250 and 400 pages. In terms of density of material, the models for the game include later editions of Call of Cthulhu, King Arthur Pendragon, and Twilight: 2000.

What cool new rules innovations can we expect to see?

I get this one a lot, and I'm not sure why. I always assumed my reputation was as a kind of "meat-and-potatoes" designer. Certainly, that's the reputation I'd prefer! I don't think in those terms when I'm designing, and Fly From Evil is built from fairly simple, tried-and-true principles. It's a unique stew of them in some ways, because (again) it's tailored to my specific tastes, and maybe it ends up doing a few new things as a side effect of that (and of the particular nature of the genre), but it's not a gimmick RPG.

What are the rules like? Can I peek?

If you're a Cumberland playtester, sure.

Very briefly and very generally, though (which is all I'm giving out just now; don't bother to write and ask for more unless you're applying to playtest), the version of the systems that has done best in playtest is a fairly streamlined, stat-based, rollunder, bell-curve, margin-driven sort of affair. It's crunchy enough to satisfy my need for meatiness over the course of a campaign, and slender enough to satisfy my need to spend more time thinking about characters than rules. I think it feels simultaneously "roleplayish" and "gamey" in a way that adds up to "roleplaying game." It's a gamer-driven design and the gamer in question is Yours Truly, shamelessly.

As a rule of thumb, if you like my other rules work (in Pokéthulhu or Risus , or in my GURPS options like Unlimited Mana ) you'll probably dig the Fly From Evil mechanics. If not, not. Same goes for the rest of the game, really. This isn't a departure from my normal approach, it's just a departure from my normal scale. This is very much an S. John Ross title with all that entails - and lots of it.

Are the rules realistic or cinematic?

They're romantic.

Beyond that, it's another one of those "yes and no" issues. Fly From Evil characters given "civilian" stats will perform very, very differently from those given stats meant to represent a legendary-figure-living-his-legend. The Game Master can set the brakes at any point along that spectrum without digging under the hood. I built the rules to adhere closely to realism (comfortably abstracted for speed and sanity), because hardboiled crime drama is, by long tradition, very nearly realistic. But I also built the stat-curve with a high ceiling and wrote a menu of special abilities to allow that realism to be compromised as the GM permits, because hardboiled crime drama protagonists often manage to dance with the reaper more adeptly than they would in less romantic literature or the real world.

What'll be in it apart from rules?

Lots, and then lots more. There are five parts to the game (these aren't final titles, just descriptions):

  • The Game Book: The usual RPG stuff. Character creation, task resolution, character evolution and advancement, combat, car chases, hazards, lists of weapons and equipment, that kind of thing. Also, additional "companion" sections each for players and the GM (on how to get the most out of the game's systems, etc).
  • The Genre Sourcebook: Lots of history and genre-specific factual stuff, from information about crimes to a sketch of the United States and key cities, to discussions of major ethnic groups (including histories and cultural backgrounds), discussions of the game's major communities (law enforcement, newspapermen, high society, city government, the underworld, etc), the big obligatory slang glossary, maps of generic locations (hotel floor, offices, bar/speakeasy, roadhouse). Also, explorations of the various subgenres and genre traditions.
  • The GMing Guide: This chapter is, among other things, about banishing the fears many GMs have of mystery-plot-writing and replacing them with a kind of childlike, eager, savage glee. Heavy on the practical how-to, with little room (or patience) for indulgent theorizing. There are articles on scenario construction, scene construction, and how to best run the classic scenes that define the genre (how to run an exciting interrogation, for example; how to run a cat-and-mouse combat scene). Also, brief articles on how to do some unusual campaign and/or group structures. One of my biggest design goals with FFE is to make every interested GM feel welcome and confident. The Genre Sourcebook is the first half of that equation, but this part will make or break the notion.
  • The San Francisco City Book: Several maps (including both general maps and "zoomed-in" views showing exact streets and alleyways in important neighborhoods), discussions of every part of the city (both generally and points of interest), and notes on changes to each area across the game's timeline. Also, notes on the deeper history of each neighborhood (your character, after all, didn't grow up in the 1930s, so you'll want to know what things were like 10 and 20 and 30 years ago), and occasional peeks at the eventual fate of the city to help GMs doing deeper research (the Mission District, for example, is predominantly working-class Irish in the game, but in most later periods it's a Latin neighborhood, and more recently it's gone to the Yuppie Dogs).
  • The Appendices & Extras: Some nifty full-length adventures, an extensive Bibliography/Filmography/Videography/Gameography, a truly massive and scary index, character sheets, collected reference pages to pin to your GM screens, and some expanded/optional rules material too crunchy to include in the main game without drying out some eyeballs. Also, a Designer's Notes article that will, in some ways, be a redress of parts of this FAQ . . .

The obligatory "and much, much more" should be mentally inserted into each of the descriptions above, especially the middle three.

What sort of characters does it focus on?

Private investigators are the heart of the game, but there are plenty of resources for other, related game topics, particularly gangsters (of the pre-corporate sort featured in the early gangster films and related pulp stories). I also provide a fair amount of detail on the lives of newsmen, since reporters make good "boundary-crossing" characters that fit will in just about any flavor of the genre, and on more independent criminal types (caper-themed specialists, grifters, small-timers). Cops (both local and federal) get a solid treatment from the private-eye-view, but it's not really a "procedural" game. Other good character types would certainly include some kinds of attorneys (criminal defense, assistant D.A./city prosecutor types), or shady-edge types like bounty hunters or even spies. The focus is "street level," though - political players like the D.A. or a syndicate boss are the "dragons" of the setting - as they typically are in the pulps. The rules are certainly suitable to playing the "dragons," but the source material doesn't focus on that side of it. It's a punching, shooting, seducing, rescuing, climbing, chasing, breaking, entering, solving, arresting, drinking, gambling, jazzing sort of game.

Any occult or supernatural elements?

The occult will often play a central role, as it does in history (Philadelphia's "black widow" murders) and in the literature (even the Op tangled with an evil cult in The Dain Curse) but, true to the game's inspirations, the personal and social power of the supernatural is nasty enough without giving it literal power as well. Magic is not real in Fly From Evil as written, to maintain the integrity of mystery plots. The genre sourcebook includes material exploring the superstitions and occult traditions of some of the principal ethnic groups, though, to give grifters something to work with (or GMs in the mood to run a literal-occult variant).

I'm a fan of [Movie X]; is Fly From Evil the game to re-create it with?

Speaking strictly in terms of rules, Fly From Evil has just about everything you'd need for any sort of non-supernatural adventure gaming set prior to 1950. You could easily do a Western with it, for example (the combat system is perfect for Westerns, mainly because the hardboiled school is the "child" of the Western in the pulp traditions). If you enjoy rules fiddling, you can plug in more modern details and/or supernatural stuff with little trouble.

I dislike it when RPGs claim to "cover" a given topic and by "cover" they mean only "mention it once or twice." So, the only honest way to approach the many iterations of this question is to answer from the resources perspective: Does the game provide GMing advice, history, floorplans, tips, historical detail, character generation material, specialty rules and insights for the style of Movie X? The following lists include the most commonly questioned works:

  • Some YES Examples: The Big Sleep, Devil in a Blue Dress, D.O.A., The Front Page, Little Caesar, The Maltese Falcon, Miller's Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Public Enemy, the Thin Man series, White Heat
  • Some NO Examples: The Godfather series, The Sopranos, any kind of supernatural horror, "superhero" pulp like The Shadow.

What's up with that title, anyway?

It's from the Book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with the Book of Ecclesiastes). It's also from a very important San Francisco landmark, a warning addressed to young white men considering dallying with the whores of old Chinatown.

Without getting too deep into the themes of the game (wait and read Fly From Evil if you're that curious), that inscription manages to capture about a half-dozen key points of what the game is about, and what the genre is about, including the broad themes of racial and gender relations, the genre tradition of the femme fatale, the character of San Francisco and its neighborhoods, and the core of the game's morality. Fly From Evil is very much a game of Good and Evil, and it makes a strong distinction between those moral extremes and the more pedestrian concepts of "Legal" and "Illegal." The genre always drives home the message, to cop and crook alike: there are evil among your kind. Fall in with them, and you share in their certain destruction. The game supports that notion, that there are "good" criminals and "good" cops and "good" private eyes, and there are evil examples of each, too. And, of course, there are men and women who walk in the shadowy lands between those things, enjoying the benefits of neither and suffering the limitations of both. Life's tough, but it's a tough-guy game, isn't it? Despite the surface grime and shadows and world-weary cynicism, the hardboiled detective genre and those genres closely related to it are heroic stories about the good guys triumphing over the bad guys, often to the tune of a gun or the crack of a knuckle. It's not sappy, butterflies-and-rainbows good, but it's the kind of good that works in the environment it lives in. If you're expecting a morally-blank tone to the game (it wouldn't resemble the source material) or film noir-style tales of infinite grays, personal powerlessness and spirals to doom (that'd be in the Los Angeles supplement), save the nickel for another stop, bub. This isn't your station. Fly From Evil is a game about strength, hope, sacrifice, and wearing that battered trenchcoat because you've got work to do, not because it looks cool.

But of course, it also looks cool.

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Fly From Evil is S. John Ross' trademark for his game of crime, mystery and sin.
Copyright © 2002-2013 by S. John Ross.

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