Sword Noir Sneak Peek: Qualities

This is your first sneak peek at the actual rules in Sword Noir: an RPG of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery. That’s not counting the development of the game at the Accidental Survivors forums. I mean, that was a real sneak peek. Sneaky von Peeky.

Following the preview is a question asked by someone who got an early look at the rules and my answer to it. This should give you a peek not at the rules but at the thinking that went on while developing the rules.


When creating a new Quality, that Quality begins at Good. Advancing a Good Quality to Great would cost another rank; from Great to Exceptional another rank, etc.

A Quality is a descriptive word or phrase, as discussed above. There is no limitation for creating a Quality, but the idea is to build on the character’s Concept. The GM may disallow a Quality too broad, such as “Fighting,” or may require the player pay extra ranks to create and advance, such as requiring three ranks just to create the Quality at Good.

By the same token, a Quality that is too narrow, such as “Fighting Terriers with a Stick” will have little application in the game.

“Stick fighting” or “Quarterstaff” would be good Qualities to represent martial prowess with a specific style or weapon.

A unique or special item or piece of equipment may also be a Quality, and this is discussed later in Items.

All Qualities, like most Aspects, are attached to one of the Traits. “Spent Time Among the Northern Barbarians” might be attached to Physique on the understanding that the culture is about strength and endurance, or it might be attached to Will because it is the barbarian’s force of will that elevates the character within the tribe.

Whenever a Quality is used to modify an action, the Trait to which it is linked is used as well. If the character has “Spent Time Among the Northern Barbarians” at Good (+2) and it is attached to Physique, which the character has at Great (+4), then when using the “Spent Time Among the Northern Barbarians” Quality, the total modifier would be +6. For more information on Tests, see Tests.

During any Test, only the Qualities attached to a single Trait may be used. Since Concept and Background are not linked to a Trait, they may be used in any Test to which they apply.

For example, let us say the character has “Stick fighting” at Good linked to Agility, which is also Good. The character further has “Hard Hitting” at Good linked to Physique at Average. The character’s Concept is “Mercenary bodyguard” at Good. In a fight, the character could use “Stick fighting” or “Hard Hitting,” but not both, because the two Qualities are linked to different Traits. The character could use “Mercenary bodyguard” in either case, given that the Concept is certainly tied to combat.

Regular and minion characters do not receive Qualities beyond those already covered in Aspects and Traits.


In general, a character has whatever is reasonable for that character to have in terms of equipment and wardrobe. Items need not be listed, but certainly can be in order to add a level of granularity otherwise absent from the character description.

Some items, though, will be Qualities. Things like a signature weapon, a magical device, or a particularly well-made tool could be taken as Qualities. These items will modify any action in which they are used for their purpose–Good lockpicks would not modify an attack and an Exceptional sword would not help when baking a cake.

An example of an item that could be a Quality would be Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The Grey Mouser’s sword, Scalpel, would not be a Quality because this is merely the name the Mouser gives to whatever sword he happens to be using.

Quality items are intrinsic to the character, and if they are lost or removed, it should only be temporary. The character should be provided with a temporary Quality of equal rank to compensate for the temporary loss of the item.

Even though these Qualities are items rather than inherent features of the character, the Qualities are linked to Traits, just as are all other Qualities.

After reading this, Graeme wrote:

I have a bit of a problem with having Quality Items being permanent. I understand that they are intrinsic to a character but if a magic sword is lost into a bottomless chasm in the course of role-play, I don’t see why an equivalent Item would show up. Also, a GM wouldn’t be able to use a PC’s prized possession as a quest hook if it were somehow stolen or lost – the character of that PC might just wait for the equivalent to turn up.

My answer to that is:
The bottom line is that Quality Items are permanent because that is fair to the player. It might be a great plot hook or story to take Glamdring from Gandalf, but Gandalf’s player—by making the sword a Quality—has told you, the GM, “I don’t want to lose this sword.” I want to respect that, because I think then the player will have more fun. No matter how cool the scene or story element is that grows out of losing Glamdring, and no matter how much the player enjoys it, the player has basically been victimized. The player has complete control over one thing in the game—the character. I want that control to remain in the player’s hands.

If the player is a dick and actually throws the sword into a volcano or sells it or trades it or something, screw him. He loses it. It’s obviously not important to him or he wouldn’t have done that.

The rules are actually designed on the assumption that the players and GM all trust each other, and that they accept the social contract of the game. Exploiting the rules for an advantage—unless this is done in cooperation or collusion with the other players and GM—breaks that social contract.

Now, as the GM, your rules are the rules of the game. It’s that simple. One option I think I could throw in there would be temporary Items. This would allow the GM to reward players outside of the Advancement rules with stuff like magic equipment. Those could then be lost, stolen, what have you. If a player fell in love with her sword, and wanted to keep it forever, the player could then buy a Quality Item for that sword, making it permanent.

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  1. I like your response. This seems to be the direction a lot of game designers are going these days: The game is about having fun, and the GM should be making decision in that direction, not towards the adversarial direction early RPGs seemed to espouse. I that unless you’re a dick, it should probably bring the GM a certain level of satisfaction when creating a fun environment for everyone at the table.

    1. The rules for Sword Noir and Kiss My Axe–and any RPG really–works best when there is trust between the GM and players. Also, for those people who whine because their group won’t try new things: I’ve found that if your players trust you to deliver the fun and excitement, they’ll go wherever you lead. That doesn’t mean pander to them or make things easy, it means deliver an experience that they enjoy.

      Kind of like being a writer or a movie director. If you establish trust, the audience will follow you just about anywhere.

  2. Hello. In the character creation phase, the traits are by default Average level (+ 0 ). We have 6 ranks to increase the Traits and Qualities. Why a player would advance a Quality linked to a Trait (to obtain a specific bonus of +2) when he can advance his Trait and so obtain a bonus of +2 in all the actions connected…? I must have missed something (because of my English). Thank you !

    1. First off, thanks for your interest in Sword Noir. It really does thrill me to hear people are actually playing – or at least reading – my games.

      The reason for purchasing Qualities is twofold – character customization and free advancement.

      The first is kind of self-explanatory. Without Qualities, the character ends up being pretty bland.

      The second is a bit nuanced. A Critical Failure allows a free Advancement for Qualities and Aspects, but for a Trait, the Advancement costs two Fortune Points. If your character lacks Qualities, the character may miss out on free Advancements.

      A Critical Success provides a free Quality at +2 tied to an existing Quality, but does not allow a purchase to link to a Trait if one does not use a Quality in a Test.

      So those are the reasons for buying Qualities. There is nothing stopping a player from just purchasing Traits, and the Critical Success and Failure may not occur enough in a cost-benefit analysis to warrant purchasing Qualities, but Sword Noir isn’t focused on restrictions and control, but is rather a game for players to create cool characters and get involved in good stories.

      If your players feel there is a mechanical benefit to only buying Traits, that’s fine. No harm, no foul. 😉

  3. Thank you for your answer. The misunderstanding can come from the fact that i am using “The Sword Edge System” rather that “Sword Noir”. I have just realized that there are some differences in their writing (not the same number of traits for example).

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