|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
The Official Fly From
by S. John Ross; FAQ Version 1.21, April 2006
|I get a stream of regular email asking questions about Fly From Evil, so I wrote this FAQ to divert my email-response-time back into actually-making-the-game time. 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. Since there's still at least one major round of playtest left, and since I take playtest very seriously (it could, at least theoretically, result in major redrafting requirements), there's no way to set and keep a release date without being half-assed about testing and development. Also, I've 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 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?
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 make a print-on-demand edition available from Lulu.com or some similar service 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.
Some traditional glue-and-paper RPG publishers have inquired gently about the possibility of licensing the hardcopy rights. After Fly From Evil has had at least a full year to walk in its native format, I might consider such a licensing arrangement if the right offer comes along. That's another big what-if far beyond my current concerns, however.
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. Also, different portions of the game will be available separately. If you already know the period and genre by heart, and plan on setting your campaign in Volstead-Era Townsville or Gotham City or something, you can just buy the Game Book and get the rules and equipment lists and stuff. That'll be a self-contained RPG, and cheap, maybe $5-$10. If you have no interest in my rules and just intend to use BESM or GURPS or Storyteller or some such, you can just get the genre-and-setting stuff. If you just want the GMing advice (if you enjoyed my Narrator's Toolkit for LUG, for example) that'll be available, too. And if you're an Adventure! or CoC or Justice, Inc. GM who just wants the San Francisco stuff, that, too, will be an option.
How big will it be?
Same answer as above, but probably around 300 pages. Maybe a little less, maybe a lot more. 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. The most unusual feature is probably the lack of traditional weapon damage, but that'll make it the third RPG I've done that lacks traditional weapon damage, so that's not much of a shock. Combat has some nice little subtleties that we've been having a lot of fun with in the local playtest campaigns.
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?
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 (as opposed to a legendary-figure-as-he-probably-really-was). 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, nearly realistic. But I 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 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 were 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, not a sitting-behind-a-desk-being-slimy, then sitting-behind-a-desk-being-slimy-some-more 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:
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.
Fly From Evil is S. John
Ross' trademark for his game of crime, mystery and sin.
Copyright © 2002-2006 by S. John Ross.