Hacking One RPG to Make Another RPG: An Interview with Evan Rowland, Designer of Noirlandia

Earlier this year, Make Big Things launched an interview series to strike conversations with indie game insiders, discussing their process, hopes, and work. For this installment of the series, we decided to sit down with one of our own: Evan Rowland. Currently, we’re running a Kickstarter for the game that Evan is the lead designer and artist for: Noirlandia. We thought this presented a great opportunity for Evan to share his insights on how to create a roleplaying game.

Brian: What inspired you to create Noirlandia?

Evan Rowland
Evan Rowland

Evan: Noirlandia was, in part, inspired by a single mechanic present in the earliest drafts of Questlandia.

This is how it worked: When creating the main characters of the game, the rules had you use some tables and randomizers to generate as many people are there were players at the table – plus one. Everybody chose their favorite, and then there’d be one extra character left behind. In Questlandia’s final ruleset, that character is just cleared away. But in the early draft, that character was killed. The death of this character would kick off your story.

We eventually decided that we didn’t want every game of Questlandia to be a murder mystery. But the seed was planted…

Much later, Hannah and I decided to simultaneously create two hacks of Questlandia for an upcoming convention. Having recently rewatched Chinatown, I felt ready to do a full-fledged murder mystery conversion of the system!

Brian: What was your biggest challenge designing Noirlandia, and how did you eventually overcome it?

Evan: From the start I wanted the game to center around the creation of a crime board – a corkboard with polaroids and newspaper clippings all pinned up and strung together with yarn.

Getting this to mesh with the rules and work properly was a long process. I started with a sort of absurd, prescriptive system: First, you find a connection, then you’ll find a clue, which then allows you to pin up a lead, which finally supplies you with an answer. You’d repeat the process four times, once for each district of the city. It was a bad system. I made bad rules.

But I playtested them anyway, and modified them, and playtested some more. I’m lucky to have many resilient and open-minded friends who were willing to try the game over and over as I iterated through rulesets.

As they stand now, I’m finally happy with the corkboard rules – they feel quick and intuitive to me. The boards actually end up looking like the tangled, paranoid boards you see in films. It’s gratifying!

A figure in a coat overlooking a valley of skeletons.
Brian: What do you hope people feel after they finish a game of Noirlandia?

Evan: I hope they feel like, somehow, all the clues and mishaps of the case have somehow, miraculously, become understandable. The best games I’ve played have taken complicated crimes and puzzled out a convincing solution. And those solutions, more often than not, have been indictments of large-scale societal structures – systems of poverty, oppression, or consolidation.

I don’t know the word for that feeling. A sort of hopeless defiance. “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.”

Brian: What’s something you learned about game design while creating Noirlandia?

Evan: In roleplaying games, you don’t make a closed system of rules. You have an additional input – the imagination of the people at the table. Your rules have to make space for the players to add their own ingenuity to the scene. And you can shape the space – it’s like drawing with negative space. This is a part of all the rules in Noirlandia, but in particular, I grappled with this concept when designing connections.

Connections, in the game, are when two different leads on your board are tied together with string. You learn how they’re related – for instance, maybe the ivory eagle was hidden away in Ms. Beuville’s attic. This is an ideal place for player input – human brains are fantastically talented at making connections. But the task actually gets tricky when it’s in the context of a larger mystery – what connection fits the information we’ve learned so far? What connection will progress the investigation?

So the task has to be opened up again to give the player some freedom in choosing the best connection to make. Normally, when this comes up in a game, there are 3 or 4 pairs of leads to choose from, which seems to give enough freedom to make a relevant choice, without being overwhelmed with options or too tightly constrained. Creating the right constraints for those moments took a lot of trial and error!

Noirlanida being played on a corkboard.
Noirlandia being played on a corkboard.

Brian: What advice would you have to people looking to design their own roleplaying game?

Evan: Start playing the game as soon as possible. Get a playtest scheduled immediately. Then do everything you can to make the game playable by that point. Let your playtesters know they’re trying something incomplete. Play the game, take notes, what went well, what was broken. Then immediately schedule the next playtest.

Playing the game with other people is how you’ll find out what your game is about, what makes it special, and the bizarre consequences of your rules. Play it!