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How to write a Noir Adventure

Whatever kind of reading genre you like best I know you can find your match in a good noir detective novel. A great stories with complex plots? Noir. Hilarious humor, albeit of a generally dark variety? Noir. Unforgettable characters? Noir. Breathless action? Noir again. It is a great article to follow my Blades in the Dark review.

When you write a noir style mystery adventure, you and your players are entering into a world of smooth talking gumshoes, two-timing dames, shadows and hazy lights. This isn’t just detective fiction. As a noir writer, you are focusing on the criminal in a concise tale that follows the character’s descent into potential self-destruction.

Keep it simple by maintaining focus on plot and mood

Much like Noir stories and novels keep the Adventure in a concise, a raw style that does not involve a great deal of explaining or wordiness. Describe stark and barren landscapes, empty cities at night, or decrepit warehouses as backdrops for the story. Tell the players enough to know where they are, but be spare with the language.


You sly dog, you got me monologuing…

Noir fiction Non-Player characters don’t tend to have much emotional depth. They scheme, they strategize, but they aren’t blabbermouths. Keep it simple, and focus on plot (and the twists), mood and colorfully pithy dialogue.


Remember who the Stars are!

The players are the Star of the Game but as a Game Master you need to remember it’s conceivable that a noir adventure can have a detective as the main character, but noir fiction tends to revolve around the criminal. It can be a man or a woman, but traditional noir style in my opinion, there absolutely must be a femme fatale! In literary circles debates have raged about whether this archetype is sexist or a sign of admiration of strong females, but whatever the case, noir adventures need a tough-talking and unforgettable woman! If your a lucky GM like me it can be your players but if not you need to add one.


Player motivation

Show us what drives the Player Characters. What has brought him or her to this desperate point? What drives her to a life a crime? Noir stories portray a criminal who is seeking one last chance at something big wither it’s a heist, a scam or a murder. Just remember most  noir protagonist are  no heroes. They are driven by revenge, greed, lust or all of the above and they cross a moral line to get what they want. In fact, there are no heroes here and the only way is down. They look for answers in the bottom of a bottle of whisky and ask questions with a gun. However, we do empathize with our anti-hero and we want him or her to win, even though it won’t get them anywhere. Give your PC’s a glimmer of hope that they will succeed, this is what keeps them going and keeps the players hoping along with them, only to have it torn away at the end.


You who reside in the Shadows

Noir fiction gets its name from a style of cinema created by European directors fleeing from WWII. They brought German expressionism to American cinema. Mostly including extreme camera angles and dramatic high-contrast lighting, which helps to cast angular shadows to great cinematic effect. Hence, film noir is associated with the night, when the streetlights reflect on rain-slicked streets and the underworld comes out to play. However, movies like Chinatown and Brick are both noir that bathe their characters in California sunshine for most of the film, but still hit the beats we expect from the genre. Your players don’t have to be creatures of the night, but it helps for adding atmosphere and the mood of the adventure. Don’t think of shadows, dark cities and smoke-filled rooms as clichés. In noir, they are necessary.


The Mystery

As I’ve already said, you don’t need to have a private eye or a world-weary police officer investigating a murder, but these staples still work as an easy way to insert a mystery as the adventures catalyst. Classic noir usually starts with a corpse, often a dames or at the very least a missing person, but the development of neo-noir of RPG’s offers Game Masters a wider scope to play with. The mystery can be less about a straight murder investigation and more about preventing a prophecy or just a mind wiped amnesiac trying to piece together their fractured history. The beauty of the nihilistic nature of the noir hero means they probably killed someone at some point and might have to investigate a case who they know who did it but need to hide the evidence, it’s the journey that adds the mystery and leads to darker nihilistic feel.



…and someone kicks in the door!

More so in Noir than any other genre can you pull two of my favorite tricks to keep a adventure plotting along, as soon as the players get bogged down in over analysis or low energy happens, Bam! Someone kicks in the door or throws something through the window! Violence is an essential part of the noir tradition. It’s symbolic reflection of the darkness of the world made tangible. The players will get a crack on the back of the head with the butt of a gun or wake up with a broken nose and tied to a chair. There are bodies to be buried, illuminated by the car headlights and the bad guys will catch up with the protagonist and give them a beating. Make sure your players will trust you its all for the fiction. That’s just the way it is because life is shitty and noir is telling us how it really is.



No Winners only losers

Honestly talk to your players before you take this into your games but, much like in the old days of Vampire the Masquerade in a Noir adventure their are no happy endings. I hope I mentioned the part about leaving hope at the door? Noir is the boulevard of broken dreams and noses, so don’t expect to let your players get the gal or guy and skip off into the sunset. That’s not going to be how it plays out in noir. Your lead may die, either literally, mentally or spiritually. Maybe they lose everything like family, job, and/or their grip on sanity. Or maybe they just lose the object of their desire which could be money, revenge, or fame. Whatever happens, make sure the players are no further ahead by the end of the adventure. So great job guys you solved the mystery, but it turns out the girl of their dreams killed that guy or they still lost all the cash and they’ve got to leave town. No happy sunsets, no sweet kisses and definitely no wedding bells! This is a noir adventure, not a Jane Austen novel!


Notable Noir fiction for inspiration:

Dennis Lehane’s A Drink before the War, a brilliant debut introduces private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, hired by three politicians to retrieve some dirty photos.

Anything by Raymond Chandler read The Big Sleep and Lady In the Lake. Chandler is an artist of the hardboiled quip, complex plots and sparkling prose.

Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon! still one of my favorite characters ever, Sam Spade was also the blueprint for Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, starting a tradition of cynical detectives that survives today in books like The Dresden Files.

Jim Butcher, Speaking of the Dresden Files! Both the 14+ novels and the famed RPG are good reads!

James Ellroy created The Black Dahlia. Ellroy is great on handling the flavor of west coast L.A. noir, mixing social commentary in with death and darkness.

Stieg Larsson’s   The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this amazing series starts with Larsson’s first novel that is a combination brilliant locked-room mystery, a study of an entire society, and classic noir premise all in one.

When writing this I was as suggested to mention Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the inspiration for famous films, The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train.



Notable TV and Movie Noir:

The Various Batman franchises, believe it or not Batman fills a lot of the Noir criteria and is a good reference for Noir,.

The Maltese Falcon, the very first one you need to see!

Sin City, if you’ve seen it need I say more.

Brick is a neo-noir set in a modern American high school and does it so stylishly. It’s an homage to film noir without being overplayed.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (either version)

The Big Sleep has everything you’d expect from film noir and is a classic for great reason.

Dark City is a Noe-Noir Sci Fi twist that shows the best of the Genre.


This was a great articleto write and to lead up to next weeks. Our review of City of Mist, a noir RPG of modern-day legends by Amít Moshe!

GM FOR HIRE, or the Merc with a D20!

Hi guys!

So seems it’s been one of those wired Moon kind of months where I’ve seen and joined in May conversation-flame Wars on a touchy subject in the RPG world and that’s Game Mastering for pay, of Professional GMing!

Ok let’s call them a Game Coach, or Game Tour Guide would you pay a sports coach or tour guide?

Now I know at this very point theirs nerd rage bubbling up and possibly tempers flaring, but wait I want to know real world reasons why paying some one to put 10-12 per-game hours, who know how much in photo copies, paper and paper and game books (more to that below to come), then the actual 4+ hours around the game table leading the story that you all will weave. Why is asking for less then the ticket price of a two hour movie a crime? I don’t think so and yes I even have a level of support on our Patreon page for a GM for a day.

Ok so now let’s talk game books:
D&D 3 core book $50 a pop, $150 for the GM maybe 2-5 player buy their own copy and if you’d like one of the published adventures that’s $50 more, ok so that’s a $200 investment (Don’t ask how much all the Edge of Empire or Force and Destiny costs!!!) so is you had 5 players chipping in $5 a game in eight sessions you would have paid your GM back for investing in your good time, but wait theirs more…8 sessions times 4 hours at minimum wage of we’ll say your home state is $6 that’s $192 more you owe your GM not counting mileage and food/drinks or time put in planning the game (remember that 10-12 hours GM’s put into writing). So please think of that before you flame a GM for looking for $5, a meal, ride home or book from from the group from time to time. GMing is a skill like writing, film directing, flipping burgers and programming a PC game. It’s amazing how it’s not ok to pay a story teller who pours themselves into a game, just like I know Photographers and artist who have their works stolen with not even a thank you.

Now I’ve heard a ton of complaints of what if the game sucks or it devalues the story or the GM will have to pander to the players well tough! So your telling me a GM has never pandered to his players that’s the whole point of the game to focus and be a fan of the players, and just like the social contract of gaming applies to the story, dice and natural game progression you discuss in advance of any play to pay game of what kind of game do the players/customers want to play (genre, pg rating, etc) as well as rules that can get a player kicked out (being too aggressive, abusive behavior etc) and deal breakers for the GM.

Now of course like I tell all my friends all the time in gaming and buying vote with reviews and your dollars you like a store, support it whenever you can with reviews and buy and preorder from them! The same comes from GMs! I’ve played with great GMs, some Bad GMs, some Inexperienced GMs, some Killer GMs, and heck I’ve played with Great GMs on an off day of running a game. Heck I know I’ve been everyone of those one time or another. So my best advise is just like going to a bar or steak joint if you order and eat, pay tip appropriately (and yes sometimes 0 is appropriate) and tell your friends and don’t patronize them again!

So I’m glad your still reading look at Wizards of the Coast their Adventure League has GMs and game stores running the same one hour session with the same pre written material provided by the stores to GMs with usually 3/4 provided and the last 1/4 for purchase. For all of this thrill for $3-$10 each person depending on city/store. Now this is great and the stores take care of the GMs in materials and normally some store credit which is awesome! Heck that’s a perfect symbiotic relationship between GMs and Stores generating supply for players needing a fix. Now this reminds me of an argument for paying GMs in that they are willing to pay for books and supplies but not ‘cash’ to a merc GM! Ok so how about next time you play how about you secretly pass the hat and pick your GM up a gift card as a group and invest in your GM to have him invest in your gaming and investing it you fun and hobby after all GMing is entertaining players is job full of pressure!

The more you invest in your game with stories, backgrounds, helping give story ideas, bring snack and please please please get your GM some drinks, hell take time and pay attention to your gaming table, your GM is doing the lions share of talking and asking questions that’s a fast way to get yourself dehydrated!

All in all support your GM in some way, even a bad GM puts a lot of time, money and energy into a past time we all love and enjoy as much as we can and if they ask to get paid maybe it’s worth the price of a fru fru drink or meal to spend time at the table and seeing their style, heck you may have to get on a wait list for a really good GM or Adventure League table!

Please comment and share! But before you say Chris Perkins or Matt Mercer know they get paid for what they do and it’s not just in exposure for their other projects.

And if your a GM remember to always guide all your players along a heroic journey to glory and victory!


Adventure outlines and design!


We all have lots of great and creative ideas and one of the hardest things is organizing them, try using this outline to help craft an encounter, adventure or even a campaign story.

It isn’t the solution to making every tale under Paylor, but it should help you, create a proactive narrative and a set up for a satisfying conclusion. Even if your group wanders away from the track, you’ll have a head start in crafting a compelling story!

What’s the issue?

It can be any thing, from crazy cults to mundane invaders! If you’re having problems being inspired that day, just choose a real problem in your life or something from history. The only caveat is that if you choose something trivial, you are setting yourself up to have to work hard to make it meaningful to the players, and if you choose something daunting, you could bog the players down as they struggle to find a solution. Look for a significant problem that can be solved by at least one of the players specialties, in one scene. But you can make anything work.

For Example

  1. The purple dragons egg is missing.
  2. Orc are rampaging across the land.
  3. The fields have been cursed.

Create the Non-Player Characters Who Have The Problem

Keep it simple. This is an adventure; there isn’t going be time to describe their middle name or family line anyway – unless those things are relevant to the problem you created. Just give yourself a few basic aspects to get into the mindset. The rest can develop as you go, or better yet as the players throw out comments!

For Example

  1. A young street rat
  2. A grandmother in the woods
  3. A gender-ambiguous child in danger

Be sure and Describe Why the Problem Matters to the Player Characters

The more important the problem is to the player characters, the more important it becomes to the story an the role playing! Come up with a solid reason why these people care; this has to go double if your problem is trivial. Raise the stakes until it has emotional impact with the players.

For Example

  1. The man the group slayed earlier bought a purple dragon egg, but he never sold it dying before finding a buyer for it. Now the egg begins to hatch in the heroes home town.
  2. Long ago, the grandmother of the player tells a story of how as a young child her younger brother disappeared after similar orcs raided. Tonight, her young grandchildren are visiting.
  3. The child has a secret urban garden that supplies a rare medicine. Unless the plants are pollinated soon, half a dozen people living in squalor – and close personal friends to the group – will die.

Separate the wheat from the chaff

When you’re finished brain storming, look over your choices and descriptions to decide if your problem is still the same as it began. In my missing dragon egg example, the added meaning has revealed the actual problem of the story: the group slayed an evil doer, releasing a complication (a classic story tool used in sequels!). I’ll need to describe why the killings will tie in with the dead villain. The other problems could also be redefined at this stage.

Bring Light to an Obstacle That Holds Them Back

Think ahead to how your PC’s could and should solve the problem. Then decide what is in their way and preventing them from getting to the finish line. What will they struggle against during the Adventure? You definitely want a character-focused story, as they are the stars of your show! This is where you introduce your players to their character arc; just make their first obstacle a personality flaw.

Be Sure to Offer One to Three Attempts to Solve the Problem

I say “attempts” because your PC’s must and will fail here and their and then face the consequences for that failure. Its ok as this builds the fun and excitement and should ramp up the suspense. Perhaps the hero runs down the clock on fruitless measures or causes more damage or consequence. After every attempt, they should be worse off than when they started.

But there’s hope! Give each failed attempt a small step toward the solution. Make sure, as the popular term goes, that the set back lets the Adventure “Fail Forward” It might be a clue, a tool, or a piece of advice that will help your character. That doesn’t mean they’ll recognize it right away. In fact, it’s better if they don’t and one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given is when things slow down: “Someone Kicks in the door and roll initiative!”

Create a Critical Turning Point “What a Twist!”

Now the helpful hints finally click together for the Adventure’s. They have a stunning realization, a clever idea, a fruitful roll of a skill or finally understand a piece of wisdom. This gives them their first opportunity to solve the problem.

If you’re planning an unhappy ending, the Adventure’s realization may be false, out of date or incomplete. Perhaps the hero latches on to the wrong solution to their problem. Regardless, at this point your Players must feel that success is possible.

Show What Happens Next

You’ve brought your Adventure and PC’s to a critical turning point. Now they’ll make a choice that determines their success, and together you’ll narrate the results. Whatever happens, their situation must change.

Go far enough with your narration that your Player’s know what’s coming next. The details might be different, but the direction is clear. This is the big wrap up point, success or failure the Adventure should be forever changed and effects will ripple along the game world. Yes, please make sure your Players feel those ripples wither its free drinks at the Tavern, NPC’s calling them out as heroes or failures and reminders a few adventures down the line.


I hope this helps even if just a little in your Adventure designing and all you plot lines get played with glee or an evil glint in your eye!



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