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.

Trust Me on This One

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.

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.

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.

Hitting Dark Atmo

I wrote about Sword Noir characters in the last post, and I mentioned this was not the hardest part about Sword Noir. What is the hardest part?

The atmosphere.

Listen, giving an actual description of what constitutes film noir is pretty tough. That’s true of a lot of genres. A lot of people know what isn’t pulp, but it’s tough to catalogue exactly what is pulp.

I have attempted to define Sword Noir, but really it really is simply a mash-up of sword & sorcery and film noir. It’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser chasing down the Maltese Falcon. It’s Conan getting hired to find red-haired Velma.

And it’s as much atmosphere as anything else.

The aesthetics of noir is very much about attitude. But while that attitude is reflected in the characters, much of it is external. Let’s look at my definition of Sword Noir 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.

See how much of that is setting? To me, setting is more than just a collection of places. Setting is atmosphere. The city of Lankhmar is what it is because of its atmosphere, not its locales and location. What makes Shadizar the city of the wicked? Casablanca isn’t about the actual place–it could be called Singapore or Cairo and the story would still work.

Setting is atmosphere.

The atmosphere is dark and hope is frail or completely absent.

That’s the second sentence in the definition. The dark atmosphere isn’t illumination, it’s a lack of hope, a setting of pessimism in which cynicism is simply being realistic. I would say it is our world, but that isn’t exactly true. Our world has hope in many places. In the case of Sword Noir, dark is a few steps away from dystopia. It’s a look at the poor and abandoned places of our own cities. You know that section of town where you wouldn’t want to be caught alone after dark? It’s that place.

And this isn’t about anything physical. This is about a feeling. This is about fear and expectation. You can’t really show this on a map. You can’t use miniatures or models to designate it. This is something that the GM and players must concoct and maintain in unison.

Notice, this is something the GM and players must concoct in unison. If the players don’t buy into this, it is not going to happen. It is tough to create atmosphere in someone’s basement, or dinner table, or spare room, or wherever. The GM can try to build the atmosphere through words and description. It can be reinforced through the actions and reactions of NPCs. What it cannot do is withstand the disinterest or disregard of the players. They must feel it, and they must portray their characters as feeling it.

That’s tough.

And this is only a part of it. Next, let’s look at:

Trust is the most valued of commodities–life is the cheapest.

I’ll be back to talk about that later.

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.