Listen, giving an actual description of what constitutes film noir is pretty tough. That’s true of a lot of genres. A lot of people know what isn’t pulp, but it’s tough to catalogue exactly what is pulp.
I have attempted to define Sword Noir, but really it really is simply a mash-up of sword & sorcery and film noir. It’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser chasing down the Maltese Falcon. It’s Conan getting hired to find red-haired Velma.
And it’s as much atmosphere as anything else.
The aesthetics of noir is very much about attitude. But while that attitude is reflected in the characters, much of it is external. Let’s look at my definition of Sword Noir again.
So what is sword noir as a genre? Characters morals are shifting at best and absent at worst. The atmosphere is dark and hope is frail or completely absent. Violence is deadly and fast. The characters are good at what they do, but they are specialists. Trust is the most valued of commodities–life is the cheapest. Grim leaders weave labyrinthine plots which entangle innocents. Magic exists and can be powerful, but it takes extreme dedication to learn, extorts a horrible price, and is slow to conjure.
See how much of that is setting? To me, setting is more than just a collection of places. Setting is atmosphere. The city of Lankhmar is what it is because of its atmosphere, not its locales and location. What makes Shadizar the city of the wicked? Casablanca isn’t about the actual place–it could be called Singapore or Cairo and the story would still work.
Setting is atmosphere.
The atmosphere is dark and hope is frail or completely absent.
That’s the second sentence in the definition. The dark atmosphere isn’t illumination, it’s a lack of hope, a setting of pessimism in which cynicism is simply being realistic. I would say it is our world, but that isn’t exactly true. Our world has hope in many places. In the case of Sword Noir, dark is a few steps away from dystopia. It’s a look at the poor and abandoned places of our own cities. You know that section of town where you wouldn’t want to be caught alone after dark? It’s that place.
And this isn’t about anything physical. This is about a feeling. This is about fear and expectation. You can’t really show this on a map. You can’t use miniatures or models to designate it. This is something that the GM and players must concoct and maintain in unison.
Notice, this is something the GM and players must concoct in unison. If the players don’t buy into this, it is not going to happen. It is tough to create atmosphere in someone’s basement, or dinner table, or spare room, or wherever. The GM can try to build the atmosphere through words and description. It can be reinforced through the actions and reactions of NPCs. What it cannot do is withstand the disinterest or disregard of the players. They must feel it, and they must portray their characters as feeling it.
And this is only a part of it. Next, let’s look at:
Trust is the most valued of commodities–life is the cheapest.
I’ll be back to talk about that later.