So . . . Noir?

Reason # 3 to buy the current issue of On Spec: it may lead to the wholesale adoption of Sword Noir as a genre . . . that or it goes into the dustbin of history, either way you have an issue of On Spec!

Yes, this article is going to be about Sword Noir. Don’t worry, Dark Horizons will be back soon. I have an itchin’ to talk sword noir in celebration of me being the featured author of the current issue of On Spec, Canada’s premier speculative fiction magazine. What, you didn’t realize that? Time to rush out and buy a copy, or perhaps order it on line? Go ahead, you do that. I can wait.

Peanut butter is good.

Wow, that’s a lot of snow.

Hmmm, do we have beer in the fridge? Maybe I should go—

Oh, you’re back. Cool. Let’s get started.

The concept of sword noir is—as you might suspect, or even know—a mashup of film noir and sword & sorcerery. I’ve already deduced what I consider to be the elements that I need to pull from each, but in case you forget, let’s go over them again.

To quote:

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.

How does one work this into your game?

Some of this is about the characters. As you might suspect, I’m about to tell you that you need to get player buy in.

You need to get player buy in.

The thing is, deciding to go sword noir means that there are constraints or at least expectations in regards to the characters. Consider the shining knight/paladin/holy warrior. You could certainly play such a character in a sword noir campaign, but the shining knight would need to be tarnished, the paladin would have strayed, the holy warrior would be questioning her faith. There are no paragons of good. There are no paragons of anything. Nothing is purely good or purely evil.

And that leads us to the villain. The characters cannot be purely good and the villain should not be purely evil. The villain should be, of course, a villain–but a sympathetic villain. By that I don’t mean one feels sympathy for the villain, but that one can understand the villain, why she does what she does. You would not do what the villain does, she goes too far, but you can understand why she does these things.

The characters may recognize how close they are to being the villain. One misstep, one ethical lapse, and the characters might find themselves on the same path. Killing that prisoner because he killed your best friend. Torturing that old merchant because the word on the street said he knew who kidnapped the boy. Turning a blind eye to the fishmonger pimping out young women because he occasionally feeds you information. None of these things would be unacceptable in a sword noir campaign. That’s not to say they are expected, and these steps could easily lead to others.

The thing is, while the characters are not lily white, they are usually better than others around them. Neither Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, nor Jeff Bailey/Markham in Out of the Past are bad guys, but that’s only in comparison to other characters in those films. They are very flawed, very cynical, and while they do some good acts, they are very self-interested.

No, that doesn’t sound like player characters at all!

Playing the bad guy is also fine. You could make the villain the local magistrate or king’s representative. In sword noir, though, the forces of law are about imposing order, not seeking justice. The city watch might be as bad as any gang, and are certainly as corrupt. The prince is not interested in the well-being of his vassals, he just wants everything to run smoothly so he can get more taxes.

If you are going to fight the power, it’s likely someone is going to bring up the prototypical outlaw hero. Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and Robin of Sherwood wouldn’t fit into sword noir, but make their band of merry men more like a real criminal gang, and you might have something. There’s nothing wrong with them taking care of the locals with the money they steal, but they’d likely keep the lion’s share for themselves. And they certainly wouldn’t like anyone speaking ill of them. A local who gets out of line would be as bad off with Robin’s men as with the sheriff’s.

Whether “good” or “bad”—in context—the characters would be talented. This fits with most RPGs, as the characters are expected to be special. They are not average joes. These are not uber-competent characters, though. They are not super-heroes. They are usually good at something in particular, though that something might be killing. Specialization is also a hallmark of a lot of RPGs, so that works out fine.

One problem with noir in regards to gaming is the adventuring party, the PC group. Usually, the characters of noir are loners. Given that, it’s still not exactly beyond the pale for the characters to form some kind of association. Trust is important in sword noir, and that may be one of the things that make the characters special: loyalty. Perhaps this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

That’s a lot of stuff to think about, right? However, making characters for a sword noir campaign isn’t the most difficult part.

So, what is?

We’ll talk later.

Mundus Novit: Dark Horizons – Who’s Taking the High Road?

This follows Seventeen: Foibles

Eighteen: Who’s Taking the High Road?

“How safe is this safehouse, yknow, exactly?” Digs had his Browning Hi-Power in hand, discrete but ready.

“As safe as possible.” Gurung led Digs up a rickety flight of stairs on the side of a three story structure that looked fabricated out of poured concrete. It was on a street block filled with more of the same. Windows and balconies revealed these to be tenements. Bikes were chained to railings or left for thieves desperate enough to want them. “Nowhere in this city is completely safe right now.”

Digs noted the quiet. Usually in a residential area, one heard life. People talked, or listened to the radio, maybe watched TV–but around here, nothing. It unnerved him. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

With neither reply nor recognition of Digs comment, Gurung stopped on the third storey, the top flight of the stairs. He listened at the door, but given the volume of their conversation, the precaution seemed odd. He drew his Browning, older and having seen more service than Digs’. “I think we’ve got a situation.”

Pulling the slide on his Browning back slightly, Digs verified he had a round chambered. “You heard something?”

“Nothing.” Gurung stared at the door, as though he could will himself to see through it. “That’s what worries me.”

If someone was in there, they would expect company. That staircase had creaked and groaned as it threatened to collapse. Digs and Gurung wouldn’t be getting the drop on anyone. No, they’d be walking into an ambush. As much as he would have liked to have just cut bait and run, Gurung’s people might be in there, maybe prisoners, maybe hostages.

And maybe everyone was out getting cake.

Gurung had his weapon ready, Digs tight behind him. Gurung gestured right, pointed at Digs with his chin, and then gestured left. Digs nodded.

Son of a bitch, we’re going to die.

Weapon up, Gurung quietly tried the doorknob.

It wasn’t locked.

Digs felt the adrenaline, felt the rush, the high. At that moment, the fear of death subsided. The thrill of action enveloped him. He coiled, ready to launch. His eyes became laser focused, his ears keyed to specific sounds, specific warnings.

The door swung open, and they moved–low, fast, sweep the room.

Target one–that was Walker.

That was Walker!

Walker stared down his sights, finger on the trigger. Digs raised his weapon over his head, stood straight, started to call to Walker just as Walker lowered the barrel of the MP5K. Digs still heard the shouts around the room.

“On the ground, on the ground!” Jeffries’s voice came firm but calm.

“Hold it! Stand down! He’s a friendly!” A woman’s voice demanded notice.

“Drop the weapon! Drop it!” Mads didn’t hide his anxiety well, though his words still rang with command.

Digs turned. Weapons all around the room remained fixed on Gurung, who held his Browning over his head, and slowly lowered himself to his knees.

“It’s good, it’s good,” Digs said. He didn’t get in the way of the pointed weapons, that would be stupid, but he waved his arms to get everyone’s attention. “He’s with me. It’s good.”

Slowly, weapons around the room lowered. An Asian woman had a silenced Steyr TMP on a tactical rig, hanging now. Digs recognized her from the briefing– Lt. Rebecca Park.

“Goddamnit, man.” Walker laughed. “I just about shit myself.”

Letting out a held breath, Gurung released a bit of laughter along with it. “I never wish to do that again.”

That was when Digs saw Dyck in the corner, on a cot, looking pale. He recognized the situation for what it was. Dyck had been shot.

Removing the suppressor from his weapon, he went over to Walker. “I’ve got shitty news.”

“There’s a mole,” Walker said. “I mean, other than your buddy over there.”

Digs glanced at Gurung, then back at Walker. “Yeah, besides my buddy. How’d you figure it?”

A low chuckle came from Walker. “We didn’t. Scott told us. Seems to know it all. Seeing as we’re only missing Flick, I’m guessing he was the one.”

“That’s what Boyle said, after he aired him out.”

Walker’s eyes narrowed. “You met Boyle?”

“Got jumped by, but yeah, met,” Digs said.

“We’re going to need to talk.”

“For certain, but two questions, man: how’s the Dick doing and what’s with Park?”

Leaning close, Walker spoke quietly “The Dick is fine, mostly thanks to Park. We hooked up with her and Scott after our little cafe reconnaissance turned into a clusterfuck.”

“Scott?” Digs glanced over at Park, who was speaking with Gurung. “You mean the guy working with Boyle?”

“Listen, none of that shit may be true,” Walker said. “Right now, Scott is getting us a doc for the Dick. After that, we’ll have some time to talk. And your friend?”

Digs had forgotten for the moment that no one else on the team had met Gurung. “Working with Boyle? Maybe. He’s working with someone.”

“Apparently including Park, and therefore Scott.” Walker scratched at the stubble on his chin. “Looks like everyone on the fucking board knows the game while we stumble around blind.”

“That’s pretty much business as usual, boss.” Digs figured Walker would have command, partially for rank and partially because no one else likely wanted it.

“Doesn’t make it suck any less.”

Gurung and Lt. Park approached the two. “Lt. Walker, my name’s Gurung.” He extended his hand. Walker took it. “I hesitate to say this, given the circumstances, but we must go. Park and Scott have a prisoner, and no one is watching him. Sergeant Dyck is stable and Scott should be here soon with a doctor. We need to secure the prisoner. And there is the question of your own guest. Perhaps we could secure him as well. We may have access to a rather efficient interrogator.”

“Wait a minute.” Jeffries had come up behind Gurung and Park. “The mysterious Lt. Park and Digs’ very questionable friend just walk out of here? With Scott not even back yet? And possibly taking our only source of information with them? I don’t think so.”

Walker offered a tight smile. “Listen, Heather, I trust Scott. He’ll be back.”

Jeffries’ face remained tight, her eyes hard. “I understand you have a history and trust the guy, but everyone’s been playing us like a piano since before we got here.”

“That much is true,” Walker said.

“And you don’t see that as a problem?” Jeffries asked.

“Gurung may have access to an interrogator.” Park spoke quiet and cool, like she knew she had what the team needed–no hard sell required. Probably the right tact, given that Jeffries didn’t seem willing to offer anyone a free pass. “He’s got someone who can get the job done quick and done right.”

“Is that a fact?” Jeffries’ crooked smile had little humour to it. “That’s convenient.”

“It is a fact, Ms. Jeffries.” Gurung met Jeffries’ gaze, but with no obvious hostility or challenge. “In truth, I am not certain I will be able to gain access to the interrogator, but if I am successful, we may have the answer to the Kathmandu silence.”

“Are we talking ‘enhanced techniques’?” Digs asked. “There’s no way I’m going to a party to that. No more CIA bush-league bullshit.”

That brought a slight quirk to Gurung’s mouth—almost a smile. “I am not part of the CIA, nor the NSA, nor any other Homeland Security organization.”

Mads walked up behind Lt. Park. “We need help. We need the information. How else can we get it? I’m guessing this guy has more contacts in the Kat than we do.”

“In the Kat?” Walker raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Mads shrugged. “Thought it needed a spiffy moniker.”

“Potential monikers aside, Mr. Sinclair is correct,” Gurung said. “I have contacts. I can be of use to you.”

Mads eyes narrowed as he focued on Gurung. “Those contacts, they might include a certain Irish guy named Boyle, right?”

“That is correct.” Gurung met Mads’ gaze evenly. “I am Boyle’s fixer just as I am yours.”

“Didn’t help him all that much, now did it.” Digs mumbled this, almost under his breath.

“He’s still alive.” Gurung held out his open hands. “That was a trick, I assure you.”

“Let me get this straight.” Digs didn’t need Jeffries’ tone crossed arms to tell him she was about to get seriously contrary. “We’re talking about letting two ciphers walk away with our only source of information, in the hopes that the colleague of the man we are supposed to be bringing in will uncover that information and then relay it to us. Are you telling me that sounds like a good idea?”

“I’m telling you it makes sense,” Walker said. “We’re not going to get anything out of this guy, not immediately. There may be a very real and very ominous clock ticking.”

“Listen, Walker trusts Scott, and Scott trusts Becca.” Mads coloured slightly when he looked at Lt. Park. “I trust Becca too. And Becca trusts this guy. So what do we have here? It’s a great big circle of trust, people. Let’s let them into the circle of trust.” He paused for a couple of beats. “What, no one saw the movie?”

“This isn’t the time, Mads,” Jeffries said.

“It is exactly the time.” Mads looked her in the eyes, no levity on his face. “It’s not a joke, Heather. The way I see it, we’ve got a few choices. We can bail on the mission. We can continue to stick out our necks until we get our heads chopped off. Or we can put some trust on the table and get the big reward. Worst comes to worst, it might put us a step closer to Boyle.”

“That might not be a place you would enjoy standing,” said Gurung.

“What makes you so certain that Boyle and his crew will be able to crack these guys?” Jeffries asked. “Why should we even risk it.”

“They’ve got an ESPer.” Mads held Jeffries’ eyes. “Put it together: Gurung’s the fixer for Boyle’s team, so he’s got access to them, right? They’re Tangible Stream. You know they’ve got at least one ESPer with them, last count. You want enhanced interrogation? It doesn’t get much more enhanced than that shit.”

Continued in Nineteen: Getting In Your Head

Quo Vadis?

Where are we going?

That’s a good question. This recent, short hiatus did provide me with some time to think, as I nursed a couple of sick kids through a lot of coughing and nose drizzle.

Here’s what I concluded. I concluded that pushing SEP as a serious venture has run its course.

Who are we kidding? SEP is really just me, Fraser. There isn’t much actual business going on, though there might be some in the near future (more later). So, the site is getting rebranded into a more personal site. The SEP connection with products, reviews, etc will remain, but this is my site. There are no longer any partners in SEP. I have people who help, but the vision and direction—or lack thereof—is wholly mine.

I am SEP.

Will this tarnish the professional veneer of SEP? Likely not as much as not publishing anything for a couple of years.

Given all that, I was also pondering possible projects in the future. I want to continue to generate content and possibly even products. I’m torn, though, as to what I would like to pursue. Here are the projects that interest me:

1) Updating the Albenistan series.
The only product in the original trilogy that I am still proud of is the Khorforjan Gambit. It’s not about content, it’s about presentation. Raid on Ashkashem was produced from a Word document. I’m not sure what Dean used for the Qalashar Device, but I’m not happy with that layout either. I wanted to redesign the series to be more like the Khorforjan Gambit, but if I’m going to do that, why not go ahead and correct the errors and issues that have been noted with all three products?

And if I’m going to do that, I can update the series. Move it forward to the present, or even the near future.

Then I’d collect all three into a single volume of just the adventures–none of the extra stuff, just the campaign.

That’s a lot of frikkin’ work, but these are my babies and I want them to look good.

2) An e-book based on the Scouts, Spies and Other Guys series at Collateral.
Scouts, Spies and Other Guys became the name for the series on gaming in the military genre I produced for the podcast Collateral, from the Accidental Survivors. I put a lot of work and research into those episodes (from Collateral 10 to Collateral 27, not counting Collateral 18).

While I didn’t do scripts for all the episodes, I started to transcribe Military Solutions (episode 10), the introductory episode, and figured it’s about 150 words per minute. That means with the 17 episodes in the series (not counting any extra episodes), I have a total of around 50,000 words, or between 150 and 200 pages, depending on the layout.

I think there’d be interest out there, but like updating the Albenistan series, this would be a lot of work.

3) True20 guide for Mundus Novit
Honestly, Mundus Novit will be out soon. I’ve seen the first proofs, but there were revisions that were necessary.

While Mundus Novit was originally written for d20 Modern, the setting is being released systemless. The Modern system supplement will be released in conjunction with the setting book. Like Freeport, this gives the opportunity to do other system books. True20 is the one I’d be ready to do, and have actually started work on. That has stalled, given that I was uncertain about the actual release date for Mundus Novit, and what the reception will be.

4) Osiris Files
As discussed here, this is a series of adventure overviews. These are not adventure modules per se, rather a concept is presented and considerations as to how approach it are discussed. The first two are done, but this is a series, and I don’t want to start releasing anything until the series is done. However, my motivation has waned because I honestly don’t know how well these will be received. Is it worth my time and effort?

I mean, I’m basically a fiction writer. That’s what I like to write. It’s what I’m passionate about.

I know that Dark Horizons is going to be collected for a PDF and print on demand book. I’m going to extend some scenes, fix some errors, and perhaps change some aspects. However, the book will essentially be the same as the web series. I have no idea if anyone will bother to buy it, but most of the work is already done, so this one’s a no brainer.

But what about beyond that? Anyone who reads my blog will know how many ideas I come up with. Do I want to start pursuing these ideas? And if so, do I want to release for free and later for pay, like Dark Horizons? Do I want to continue doing modern genre? I don’t have a lot of ideas for modern, but sword & sorcery doesn’t fit too well with the main output at SEP.

I think I’m going to wait and see how Dark Horizons works before making a decision on this one.

Now, I don’t know how I’m going to decide what I’m going to do. For some stuff (Mundus Novit and fiction), the market will help me decide. If either Mundus Novit or Dark Horizons are successful enough, that’ll decide it for me. Yes, I am mercenary like that. Otherwise, I’m going to see what my time availability is like. While all require effort and time, something like transcribing can be done in short spurts without any real degradation, while creative work—for me—suffers if I don’t have at least an hour to devote to it at a stretch.

If anyone has any strong opinions, you know where to find me.

Veni Vidi . . . Scripsi?

Sword’s Edge Publishing is back as I have not died from the plague.

However, I will be candid with you and admit that I have burned through the buffer of chapters I had for Dark Horizons, so the new chapter will not be forthcoming this week. I apologize. Any explanation would seem like a rationalization, so I’m not going to provide one. I screwed up, let things get away from me, and this is the result.

Mea culpa.

Rest assured, a new chapter will be ready next week. Dark Horizons will continue to its conclusion.

DriveThruRPG’s Customers Donate $178,900.00 to Doctors Without Borders for Haiti Relief

Posting directly from the press release:

(Atlanta, GA) – DriveThruRPG, an online marketplace for traditional dice-and-paper roleplaying games, recently conducted a fund-raising program in the wake of the devastating earthquake that affected Haiti. The effort resulted in an amount of $178,900.00 being wired to the international relief organization, Doctors Without Borders.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in our community,” said Sean Patrick Fannon, Marketing Manager for DriveThruRPG. “The response of the publishers and the gaming community has been nothing short of miraculous. I am extremely proud of what we’ve all done here. It can’t take away the misery and tragedy faced by the people of Haiti, but we are hopeful that our efforts can bring some relief and recovery to them.”

DriveThruRPG chose Doctors Without Borders because of their flawless reputation for bringing medical and humanitarian aid to those in need without any partisan or philosophical agenda attached. Already on the ground when the earthquake struck, Doctors Without Borders is perfectly positioned to make immediate and efficient use of the funds collected.

“We are extremely grateful to DriveThruRPG and the roleplaying game community for choosing to contribute to Doctors Without Borders. Their generosity will help provide lifesaving and urgently needed humanitarian assistance to the victims of the recent earthquake in Haiti,” said Jennifer Tierney, Director of Development for Doctors Without Borders-USA. “As Doctors Without Borders provides surgery for victims of the earthquake, as well as post-operative care, mental health support, and other medical care, this contribution will make a real difference in Haiti.”

Reports from Doctors Without Borders indicate that over 11,000 have been treated by them, with over 1,300 surgeries performed (most of them major). The money donated by DriveThruRPG will go directly to helping rebuild their supplies and expanding their operations during the recovery of the Haitian nation.

“This is just the beginning,” said Steve Wieck, CEOof DriveThruRPG. “We’ve tapped into a real power for positive social change and charitable good here, and we’re looking ahead to future opportunities to use our technology to help game publishers and game fans network to provide assistance to those in need.” is the world’s largest source of roleplaying game products available for download. It is an industry leader in modern business and technology developments for the tabletop gaming fan. For more information, contact Sean Patrick Fannon (, 614-946-9371).

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organization working in nearly 70 countries to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe. For more information, contact Emily Linendoll, Press Officer (, 212-763-5764).