There are a lot of different factors to playing a role-playing game. One of those, at least in most of the ones that I play, is resource management. Whether it is making considerations based on remaining hit points, or deciding when to use that last remaining conviction point, there are resources that impact on our decisions regarding our character.
The very essence of sword noir includes a kind of a different of resource. Let’s look at that definition 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.
Trust is the most valued of commodities–life is the cheapest.
How does one emphasize this in a game? I mean, you can tell your players, but just like I was saying with the dark atmosphere, it takes more than words. Not only does one need player buy in, this—like all other aspects of the definition—needs to inform not only the setting but also the characters.
If one were the kind of person who loved to tinker with rules, one might include some ability, point system, or other mechanic that would reward things like keeping one’s word, honouring contracts, acting in a humane and decent manner. These things would not be all that common in a sword noir setting.
True20 has virtues and vices that can provide a mechanical benefit (a conviction point) when following one of these puts the character at a disadvantage. It is a mechanical method for maintaining character, but something similar could be used or expanded with a specific group of virtues, things that hit on trust and honour, and these would be common to all characters—even though they would not be a part of that character, rather a part of the setting.
Other than providing a benefit through some kind of bennie system (or conviction, or hero point, what have you), there is also the consideration of reputation. While many systems include a reputation mechanic, there might be a separate, or complementary mechanic that could be implemented. Being a person one could trust might not make one more known, but once identified, the character’s reputation as a straight shooter could influence everything further.
Even without a mechanical benefit, it is important that the GM remember instances when the characters act with honour even though it is not necessary. Coerced honour is not really honour, and completing a contract out of fear isn’t cause for notice. However, those for whom the character does a favour, or a kindness, or just does the right thing will be those to whom the character may turn for support, or who might appear like the cavalry at just the right moment.
Sure, adhering to a code of honour or even a contract may mark the characters as naive or soft for some elements of society, and this could lead them into dangers or trouble. However, overcoming these problems will only enhance the characters’ reputations.
And as for life being cheap: let’s face it, in most RPGs, it is. However, you might want to remove things like the Conan RPG’s “left for dead” mechanic, or the True20 use of a conviction to avoid death. In 3E/3.5, make the massive damage threshold equal to the character’s Constitution—basically, how it works in d20 Modern.
Make the characters fear death. And don’t forget to show them the death around them. Flunkies who fail or who say too much disappear, only to reappear as a corpse. Someone who helps out the characters get a step closer to the Big Bad? Yeah, that guy (or girl) pays the ultimate price. The characters need to be tough, because a common reaction to enmity is death—why leave someone alive who can come back for revenge?
Grim leaders weave labyrinthine plots which entangle innocents.
That’s what comes next. This is part of the setting, but also part of building campaigns for sword noir.