Stolze says A Dirty World was inspired by noir film. Me, I could care less about that celluloid crap, but hard-boiled I can get into. Just like I could give a crap about Chandler, whose hyperbolic prose some people mistake for style. Any random Chandler novel would be improved by deleting three quarters of the adjectives. Give me Hammett any day.
A Dirty World uses a variant of Stolze's "One Roll Engine," a system he created for Godlike. "One Roll is a misnomer," since you're mostly rolling a half dozen D10s or more. But at least there aren't any crappy die-roll modifiers to memorize or shit like that.
Both sides roll dice and divvy up their rolls into "sets" of matching rolls, like, I got two sixes (2x6), three 4s, and the rest are crap. Larger sets "act first" and the value of the roll indicates level of success. There more to it than that, but you get the idea.
One thing that's different about this game is that character values are based on three "Identities" and six "Qualities," and you typically choose one of the first and one of the second in an action. Each is actually two opposed concepts: e.g., one "Identity" is "Purity vs. Corruption." Unlike other systems with opposed things, though, these aren't sliders; you can have some level of both, but only up to a certain point. Like this:
This fella has purity 2 and corruption 2; if he had purity 5, he couldn't have corruption of more than 2. Get it?
At the end of every scene, you can "slide" one point in a Quality (e.g., move one from purity to corruption, or vice versa). Also, each scene you can petition the gamemaster to let you increase one value by a point, for a net gain, but have to have a roleplaying justification for why this happened (I just confessed to the priest, ain't that good for a purity? Yeah, sure, I'll say the damn Hail Maries.)
"Identities" are less mutable than "Qualities;" you can only slide one at the end of a session, or sacrifice points in two related Qualities for a net increase of one point in an Identity.
Stolze says: "A Dirty World rebuilds the One Roll Engine from the ground up to support those themes. Action has consequences, but it’s the only way to make progress. But be careful: Your character’s effectiveness hinges on the choices he makes. It doesn’t matter how nice you say he is: If he acts like a rat, soon a rat is all he’ll be able to be."
Something to that, and the mutability of the Qualities makes sense in the mercurial world of noir, where a steely-eyed killer can be equally misty-eyed over his brother, or some dame for that matter. Yet there's always a hard core to people in this milieu, so maybe there's too much mutability, too.
Stolze is working against a couple of basic problems with doing a tabletop RPG here, which I'm not sure he's solved, though. First is that hard-boiled fiction is almost always a one-man show. Sure, there may be a bunch of characters, but the focus is on a single protagonist -- not an environment well suited to RPGs, which need to allow all the players to be vital in their own way. Second is that Stolze seems to envision the game as a traditional campaign; while series are a staple of detective fiction, they don't generally work for hard-boiled. Hard-boiled fiction tends to be in stand-alone novels (or movies), because the emotional impact on the protagonist is by nature harrowing -- and because characters die constantly. Much harder to have an ongoing series than in, say, cosies or procedurals.
A Dirty World clocks in at 70 pages, but not at a high type density; it's a swift read. Maybe too swift. Almost all of those pages are devoted to system, and very little to setting. Doubtless Stolze's assumption is that most players will understand noir well enough to wing it, but the game would be improved, I think, with more attention to background, story ideas, gamemaster tips, and the like. The one nod in this direction is a set of tables for random story idea generation, which is nicely executed but left me wanting more. And the one nod to setting is an intro and an outro written in hard-boiled style -- nicely written, too, Stolze could probably sell a novel to Hard Case Crime (a publisher run by Charles Ardai, longtime contributor to Computer Gaming World, by the way). But while these passages add color, they don't really help in showing you how to create and sustain noir-themed roleplaying.
Still, this is an interesting attempt to use system itself to sustain a particular mood and narrative style, something which I wholeheartedly support. Generic systems suck, you know.
Back in the 80s, me and Jimmy D ran the numbers in the Flatiron. It was kind of a family business for Jimmy, and he hooked me into it because we got to be buddies in Korea, but I was in it because the money was good. As a cover, he ran a wargame business, of all things, which I thought was dumb -- I'd had enough of that crap overseas -- but all in all, it wasn't a bad cover. What I didn't know at the time was the Jimmy actually cared about the games, and was pushing every dime he made into the fucking cover business -- and the the Dotts from down Baltimore way were running the same scam, and planned to hit both sides of Jimmy's operation, both the numbers and the games. Which is how come I wound up in a college cafeteria in Staten Island, surrounded by dozens of teenagers pushing little cardboard counters around, with a passel of Ballmer heavies glaring at me from across the room, a Glock heavy in the holster under my jacket, wondering how to get out of this alive, and without getting a bunch of gormless gamers iced.
Sorry, got carried away there.