Friends of Keyser Soze

I’m back to talk about adapting sword noir into a campaign. This is all based on a rather flippant but workable definition of sword noir I shared here.

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.

Grim leaders weave labyrinthine plots which entangle innocents.

Let’s unpack that a bit. Who are these grim leaders? I’m going with the Big Bad and the Big Motivator.

The Big Bad is just an appellation for the main villain. A lot of people refer to the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy), who is the antagonist for the ultimate encounter. In sword noir, it’s unlikely the Big Bad will be the challenge for the player characters. The BB tends to set things in motion rather than get involved. Further, the BB is actively trying to keep everyone in the dark about his or her identity and purpose. In the end, the BB should kind of be the Keyser Soze of the story.

And like that… he’s gone.

Unlike Keyser Soze, the BB shouldn’t really get involved in the actual machinations, rubbing elbows with the PCs, even under a pseudonym. Unlike in a movie or a book, there is an obvious difference between the PCs and an NPC, and should there be some internal problem, the suspicion would fall on the NPC. This could be remedied by making one of the PCs the actual BB, but this will only work when there is player buy-in and trust. Making a PC more powerful than the others, and with the purpose of betraying those others, is a rather obvious recipe for dysfunction, unless you are certain your players are all in for that kind of game.

The Big Motivator is the person behind the PCs. It may be the PCs’ employer, ally, or simply a source of information. If the PCs are totally solo, not contacts or connections, there likely isn’t a BM. If there is, the BM is like the BB. The identity of the BM is closely guarded. One does not simply call the BM, the BM will contact you. For the BM, anonymity is protection, the best protection possible.

Given that this is sword noir, the BB is not necessarily evil and the BM is not necessarily good. Morality is shifting and opaque. The characters might be criminals. If not criminals, they exist in a world in which even those whose duty is to protect, spend much of their time profiting. If the characters are not criminals, much of the world around time is criminalized.

Whether they be evil, good, or somewhere in between, both of the “leaders” would be “grim.” Any hint of empathy or ethics would be seen as a weakness to be exploited by those planning to replace said leaders. Their guards are never down, and they must exemplify cold calculation if they are to maintain their lofty positions. As such, while they may have allies, they have no friends, and they will sacrifice whomever needs to be sacrificed to protect themselves and their place of power.

From those places of power, they plan and connive to garner just a little more power, just a little more profit. They may not be top of the food chain, and seek to reach that pinnacle. They may be master criminal of the city, but wish for the inclusion in “respectable” society—that same respectable society that probably turns to the grim leaders when they wish dirty deeds done . . . possibly cheap.

Whatever their aim, the path to their goal is never straight and it is never clear. Their purposes are never truly known, their interests never explicit. The characters may believe that they are stealing from the pimp who double-crossed their boss, only to find out the supposed pimp has nothing of worth, and has the protection of another powerful crime boss. The characters have just put a big target on their chests and have no idea why.

Someday, maybe they’ll figure it out. Probably not.

Think of the Maltese Falcon. Who are all these characters, and what are they trying to achieve? Think of Out of the Past. Who is telling the truth and does it matter?

Granted, this can be overdone. Don’t leave the players totally bewildered. Before getting too deep into a plot, make sure at least some of the loose threads from the last one have been tied up. Be sure to give closure on some mysteries before adding new ones or you risk fatiguing your players, which will lead to a lack of interest. The number of times I’ve said you need player buy-in can lead you to guess pretty accurately what will likely happen to your game when the players start losing interest.

And don’t forget the innocents. Sometimes, this could be the characters themselves. Though not strictly a noir, think of the Roger Thornhill character in North by Northwest—the innocent man mistaken for another that gets dragged into a pretty labyrinthine plot. The innocents may also be those simply caught up in events, who may or may not have ties to the characters. Remember, the leaders are grim. Sacrificing a few nobodies won’t matter to them at all, be that sacrifice financial, ethical, or lethal.

The final aspect of the description is one that originates with sword & sorcery rather than noir.

Magic exists and can be powerful, but it takes extreme dedication to learn, extorts a horrible price, and is slow to conjure.

We’ll discuss that next.

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