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.
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.