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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.
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.
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!