As a reader I have long been a fan of ‘pulp noir’.
The world of role play gaming has long been something I enjoy since being introduced to Dungeons and Dragons about a quarter of a century ago.
So when I read an intro to Sword Noir on Kickstarter recently I was intrigued.
“Imagine a barbarian prince embroiled in the criminal underworld of a cosmopolitan city as they seek for an artifact in the shape of a falcon statue. Consider two accomplished thieves—one an urbane duelist and the other a brawny skald—hired by a wealthy retired general to deal with a blackmailer, only uncover multiple murders tied to the general’s children. Envision hardboiled crime fiction in the worlds of sword & sorcery,” details the intro, adding that’s Sword Noir.
“In the world of Sword Noir, the 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. 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.”
It sounds like a great place to explore as a player character, and it gets better.
Inspired by mashing up the novels and stories of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Robert E Howard, and Fritz Leiber, Sword Noir: A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery was first released in 2011 and became the basis for the Sword’s Edge RPG
“Now is the time for your characters to walk down mean streets, drenched in rain, hidden in fog, and unravel mysteries, murders, and villainy.”
It was the mileau that had me seek out Canadian game creator Fraser Ronald of Sword’s Edge Publishing to learn more about Sword Noir and its creation, starting with what led to writing the RPG?
“I am a fan of both swords & sorcery and hardboiled detective fiction, and I realized there were a lot of similarities in tone, tropes, and characters between the two,” he said via email. “In my own sword and sorcery fiction, I recognized I was often using plots that wouldn’t be out of place in film noir—for example “Flotsam Jewel” in Forgotten Worlds (issue 9), “For Simple Coin” in On Spec (issue 79), and “A Dead Pound of Flesh” in Black Gate (issue 15).
“The plot motivators are generally magical in nature, but otherwise the stories were similar. Calum’s search for a jewel in Flotsam isn’t unlike Sam Spade’s search for a black figure of a bird in San Francisco. I decided I wanted to bring the same noir atmosphere from my fiction into my gaming space, and so the kernel of the idea that led to Sword Noir was born.”
But, the world of RPGs is a crowded one these days, why another one into such a market?
“When I was working on Sword Noir, I developed a design goal that helped direct me. So for Sword Noir, the characters’ morals are shifting at best and absent at worst,” reiterated Ronald. “The atmosphere is dark and hope is frail or completely absent. Violence is deadly and fast. 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.”
They are themes Ronald said he felt could offer an interesting gaming experience.
The game took a couple of years of design and playtesting before the release of the first edition in 2011.
“This second edition has been in the works since 2017,” said Ronald. “It certainly hasn’t been my only project in that time frame, but that was actually good. A lot of the lessons I was learning in other designs helped me as I was updating Sword Noir.”
Interestingly the most difficult part of the process was not writing the rules, but having the rules thoroughly explored after creation.
“Playtesting, for me, is always the most difficult,” said Ronald.
“First, it is always difficult to find groups—outside of one’s own social circle—willing to undertake a playtest.
“Second, during a playtest, the designer is trying to fix issues that arise, but constantly changing the rules with each session creates difficulties for the players, and one may be unaware of a compensating factor if one is too quick to fix what is initially identified as a problem.”
As for the strength of the game, it comes down to the characters Sword Noir will allow participants to fashion.
“What I have tried to do—and based on feedback have succeeded—is to have a system that allows a player to create an interesting character,” said Ronald. “Because characters are designed using description, by describing the kind of character you want to play, you are pretty much building your character. The system is also built to reward characters acting in their niche—which means that it feels satisfying for players because their characters feel like heroes.”
Ronald said he thinks his game is interesting but not necessarily better than others. It is however an interesting gaming option.
“It almost feels like disparaging other games if I say Sword Noir does this and no one else does,” he said. “I will say that it seems like Sword Noir fills a very specific niche, one that I don’t think is generally serviced by other games. If having Conan tracking down red-haired Velma in Shadizar sounds exciting, Sword Noir is built for exactly that.”
Of course as an RPG, Sword Noir is open to expand upon.
“There are a few possibilities,” said Ronald. “The canonic setting for Sword Noir is Everthorn—a former imperial capital fallen on hard times that remains a commercial power at the centre of the world.
“If there is interest, I could pursue a setting expansion for Everthorn.
“There are also three adventures that were released for the original game that could be updated.
“However, I leave the decision to what project I will pursue next to the kind people who back me on my Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/FraserRonald), so any further expansions are left to their discretion.”