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Mean Streets: Classic Film Noir Roleplaying

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RPGPundit Reviews: Mean Streets: Classic Film Noir Roleplaying

You know, Precis Intermedia Games are the publishers of the Two-Fisted Tales RPG. I have made no secret of the fact that I consider Two-Fisted Tales to be the best Pulp themed RPG out there today; even moreso after I started running my 2FT campaign, which has been awesome.

Now, some people have accused 2FT of being somehow "better for noir" than for Pulp; an accusation that I can only imagine is borne of never having actually read the game; since 3 of the 4 levels of the game are absolutely gonzo, and the game allows for a wide range of really cosmic-level play (everything from, say, Indiana Jones or Johnny Quest, through Doc Savage and all the way to Lensman). Even the lowest level of play, "Gritty", is still too over-the-top for Noir and fits firmly in the "Adventure fiction" area of Pulp gaming. So those who have accused 2FT of being Noir are full of crap.

Now, Mean Streets, that's another story. Mean Streets IS Noir, and its unbelievably fantastic.  Its Noir, but its also so much more.  This is undoubtedly the game for you if you wanted to run the Maltese Falcon, or any kind of "Detective Stories" campaign; but its also the best game I've ever seen for running something like the Godfather, or any kind of Mafia-themed RPG.  It would even be ideal for running something like "Law and Order" or those sorts of tough, realistic, Cops & D.A.s adventuring.

Once again, Precis Intermedia and Brett Bernstein have blown me away.

The game is another of their Genre Division i games, using that same system as used in Coyote Trail, Hard Nova, Colonial Record, and Ghostories.

The GDi system is based on a 2d6 mechanic; where characters have a set of five abilities (ranging from 0-5 in value) , and a bunch of skills (ranging from 1-8; 0-8 if you count "untrained").
Players must select a role for their character, an occupation or vocation; in the case of Mean Streets you get the occupations you'd expect to see in a film noir story: Dilettante, Assistant District Attorney, Femme Fatale, Fixer (the guy who has the info and street contacts), Gangster, Gangster Moll (a gangster's girlfriend), Girl Friday (the classic film noir detective's super-capable secretary), G-Man, Grifter (con artist), Mystery Man (dude suffering from amnesia or who's identity is otherwise unknown), Police Detective, P.I., Reporter, or Veteran.  Your role determines your required starting gimmicks and some recommended starting skills.

Skills represent areas of training, and Gimmicks are your "feats", which range from social gimmicks, cultural gimmicks, natural talents, and also "detrimental gimmicks" (ie. disadvantages). Gimmicks in Mean Streets include Connection Gimmicks (contacts among gangsters, the church, police, medical, reporters, or the street), Cultural Gimmicks (including "criminally insane", "ex-con", "fugitive", "legally dead", "wealth"), Inherent Gimmicks (enhanced senses, physical attractiveness, constitution, dexterity, eloquence, intuition, moral compass, etc etc), and Detrimental Gimmicks (alcoholic, amputee, dark secret, debt, discrimination, glass jaw, gullible, lecherous, paranoia, physical detriments, illness, stooge (finding one's self in debt to a gangster), etc etc).

For those who haven't read my previous reviews regarding the GDi system; task resolution is very simple: you roll 2d6 and need to roll under the value of your ability+skill. Harder tasks can require you to beat the roll by more than 0. Mean Streets includes rules for Composure (checks to handle extreme circumstances), rules for conducting investigation to uncover clues, and rules for utilizing contacts. Not to mention Combat and car chases, of course!

All of this stuff is handled in the first two chapters of the game. And certainly, the tough gritty mechanism of the GDi system lends itself naturally and is an excellent fit with the grittiness of Noir, police drama, and gangster stories.  But the real value of this book comes out starting in Chapter 3. Here you get the details on the default setting of Mean Streets: the "Big City"; New York around 1943.

The setting material in the book gives an excellent summary of the state of things in this year, and lots of detail about what the five Boroughs of the city were like at this time, as well as details on particular notable neighbourhoods (like Greenwich Village, Harlem, Little Italy, and Chinatown); and notable landmarks of the city: the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Laguardia Airport, Central Park, Times Square, Long Island, the Rockefeller Center, and the Statue of Liberty.
After that, you get some very well-detailed and clearly well-researched material about the state of the "war on crime" at this time period, as well as racial tensions.

The next chapter, "Crime and Punishment", explains in great detail what you need to know about the Police in this setting, the different levels of law enforcement, Major crimes and definitions of criminal law, Private Investigators (and some ideas about the things P.I.s commonly investigate), the courts and judiciary, and a stage-by-stage breakdown of how a trial is conducted (including explanations of how objections are made, rules on double jeopardy, expert witnesses, sentencing, etc.).  This chapter alone would give you just about everything you'd need to run a campaign of the style of "Law and Order" with this book.

The next chapter is full of gamemaster advice for how to run games that emulate the Noir style. You get lots of great tips on characters, developing setting, establishing mysteries, and the role of women and men in film noir. The chapter goes on to provide a great gamut of adventure seeds for Noir games, and a list of prices for common items in the 1940s.

Chapter Six provides some optional rules, including character advancement, creating extras, rules for more heroic-level play, rules for drinking, and conversions to a couple of other systems.

Chapter Seven is the last regular chapter of the book, and provides an adventure called "A Tangled Web", which the author describes as being inspired by the classic 1953 movie "The Big Heat". Its a classic detective story with a femme fatale and a lot of gangster action.

Now I have to make a note about the version of the book I'm reviewing. I'm using the print version of Mean Streets, printed and bound by Precis Intermedia itself, and a note on the back tells me that usually this game is only available as a PDF, or is out of print.  I'm not sure which of the two is the case, but in any case my version of the book comes with a whole extra section at the end, the "Mean Streets Enhancement Pack".

The Enhancement Pack in this case is well worth having, since it adds a ton of useful material. You get some extra roles (Bank Robber, Beat Cop, Hoodlum, Entertainer, Lawyer, and Star Athlete), some new regular gimmicks, and some special cliches, which are role-related gimmicks meant to emulate some of the more stereotypical abilities of the different characters from Film Noir movies.  These Cliches are divided into the categories of Fighting Cliches, Chasing Cliches, Investigative Cliches, Performing Cliches, and Miscellaneous Cliches.  So a Private Investigator role can buy any ONE fighting, chasing, or investigative cliche.  Your private investigator might want to buy, for example, the Fighting Cliche of "bullets unlimited", where he never runs out of shots; or the Chasing Cliche of "cars aplenty", where he manages to always find an unlocked car on the street; or the Investigative Cliche of "its in the mail", where, if he runs out of clues, will find one mysteriously dropped into his mailbox.  Obviously, these Cliches are for when you want to move a bit out of the realm of the realistic and more into the realm of the cinematic.

The second, and to me most important of the Enhancement Pack addendums is a guide to Organized Crime. You get an incredibly well written, well detailed summary of how organized crime worked, its history, hierarchy, Mob titles, the Omerta, the mafia's code, and how the mob operated in the different big cities and regions of the United States. You even get details about different classes of Mafia executions, and some story ideas.  With this chapter added to the material already provided by the Mean Streets main book, you get absolutely you would want in order to run a "Godfather" campaign (or whatever other kind of Mob-themed RPG campaign you'd like).

The final addendum to the book is "Where Shadows Fall", another full-blown Mean Streets adventure. Its described as a "classic film noir tale of greed, murder, and corruption". Again, you have a femme fatale, crooked cops, decadence, and a slew of unsavory characters for your group to confront.

To sum up: Mean Streets is a masterpiece. It certainly gives everything it promises: providing an unequaled system and setting material to run Noir adventures. But in fact, it goes well above and beyond that call of duty, and could be useful to anyone who's interested in doing any kind of modern Crime drama RPG campaigning, be it from the P.O.V. of the side of the law, or the mobsters, or both. I can't recommend this game enough to anyone who's interested in any of the above categories.


Not to nitpick, but most of the writing was done by the game's original authors, Mark Bruno and Jack Norris, for the Deep7 version. Although you might not grok that from the way they are listed in the PIG edition's credits.


--- Quote from: iamsumo;251276 ---Not to nitpick, but most of the writing was done by the game's original authors, Mark Bruno and Jack Norris, for the Deep7 version. Although you might not grok that from the way they are listed in the PIG edition's credits.
--- End quote ---

That's true, Mark. Thanks for pointing it out. The credits are intended to highlight the original authors, even though most of it was rewritten. For a more conventional list of credits, this is it...

Brett M. Bernstein
Mark Bruno
Jack Norris

Editing, Layout, and Production:
Brett M. Bernstein

Peter Hince
D. Kowalski

Can this game do justice to Sin City? That is my primary inspiration for this.

If you want dramatic action, go with Mean Streets. If you want cinematic action, go with Two-Fisted Tales 2E.


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