The game engine called Powered by the Apocalypse has spread far beyond it’s original form as a post-apocalyptic game of sad struggle. It’s even changed beyond the logical extension of Dungeon World which took those powerful stories and placed them in a fantasy world like D&D. Given the storytelling focus of the game engine, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the game would eventually iterate into film genres but the level to which it gels with noir film is amazing. Allow me to outline for you the amazing game called Noir World by John Adamus.
Here’s a quote from the book’s introduction that really drives home the flavor of both the noir genre and the gameplay of Noir World itself.
Noir World is a world of blacks, whites, and grays; of shadows and light pouring in through venetian blinds; of twists and turns and betrayals and tangled relationships; of crime, danger, drama, cigarette smoke, lonely nights, people you might not trust, people who you think love you, and all the stuff of old movies. …
You don’t have to be a good guy. You don’t have to be a villain. You might end up being a little of each. But the Movie you tell will be yours, and it will be a rollercoaster. Get ready to walk rainy streets, where danger and complication follow you like a second shadow.
This focus on “Movie” is more than just a renaming of the game terms. Players in Noir World are the stars of the story and they have immense narrative control. It’s a collaborative game with no experience and gold hoards (like many PbtA games) and it has no GM (unlike many PbtA games). Every Scene sees a new Director who shapes the action in that Scene, and then relinquishes to the next Director when the Scene ends. You can run just a one-off Movie or a series of Movies (like some sort of Godfather thing) but the sharing of responsibility means that people are hypothetically more invested in the story and less invested in their character’s success. Corrupt mayors can go to jail, altruistic cops can die in alleyways, and the show goes on.
The core of Noir World is summed up in the following central directives: Be ready, willing, and able to tell the best Movie possible, even if it means it’s not about your successes; Look for opportunities to share the spotlight or help each other tell their stories; and If everyone can agree to it happening, it happens. This is an egalitarian approach to the game but it also reminds people to be governed by the story and not vice versa. Just like characters in a noir film, your just trying to survive against a mechanism that is grinding on without empathy.
You make your own setting in PbtA games and Noir World is the same. As a group you develop the setting for your Movie including the era (anything from the 1770s to the cyberpunk future works, though the 1940s is typical), the crime at the heart of the story, the Hooks for all of your Roles, some people and places to act as scenery, and a Director to start things off. There are lots ot notes to help you with this, as well as a set of tables for generating crimes randomly. There are some great sections about structuring your Movie as a three-act story and of making your City all-encompassing and relentless.
The basic moves for all characters are Check It Out (for investigating), Fight It Out (for punching), Taling Out (for persuading), and Help Out (for assisting another character). It’s easy to get hurt in Noir World and hard to get healed up so take things seriously. For the Director (who, again, changes every Scene) there are lots of guidelines like “Breathe the Noir” and “Mask Your Actions.” This game is all about immersion and there is a lot of advice on running good, suspenseful games here.
As far as actions, the Director gets free actions( stuff that can happen whenever like “Fade to Black”) and limited actions (stuff that should happen infrequently like “Set Up Something to Pay Off Later” or flashbacks). Just like other PbtA games, this is a magnificent toolchest that lets everyone feel successful as a Director.
Things get pretty interesting here as John Adamus has written a lot of different playbooks to populate your noir story. The first group of roles are the “Movers,” those character archetypes that propel a story forward. These are the Good Cop, the Dirty Cop, the Fatale, the Mook (drives a story?), the Private Eye, the War Vet, the Politician, the Career Criminal, the Gambler, and the Reporter. Each of these roles has Secrets, Goals, Belongings, Hooks, and four different actions to choose from for your character’s abilities.
These ten roles are enough to get you going with noir stories already but the book further has the “Shakers,” which are described as more reactive. Where the Movers try to get to the bottom of things the Shakers try to keep the status quo and throw roadblocks in the way of troublesome characters (NPC or PC). The roles for the Shakers are the Starry-Eyed Kid, the Citizen (sort of a nobody who gets caught up in the story), the Socialite, the Disgraced Doctor, the Musician, the Attorney, the Gangster, the Celebrity, the Ex-Con, and the Girl/Boy Friday.
But there’s more! In the One Shot Network’s Noir World series, the players joked around about the setting of their noir story and the irreverent Jim McClure insisted that they have a story about longshoremen as he jokingly thought they were playing “Narwhal.” John Adamus seems to have taken that and run with it as a special “Featurette” called Narwhal appears in Chapter 7 of the book. This is a narrowly-focused premise where your desperate, grayscale characters are fishermen in the middle of the cold ocean with six narwhals trying to sink them. There are some rules adjustments for this and six new roles: the Captain, the Mate, the Salt, the Rookie, the Drifter, and the Loose Cannon.
But that’s not all! Another featurette makes up Chapter 8: The Prom. In this twist on the classic teenage story, it’s a raw and desperate version of prom weekend where young kids make fateful decisions that will shape the rest of their lives. Just like the dirty cop or the socialite in more traditional noir fare, these characters are emotionally charged and primed to make bad decisions. Once again there are some rules modifications (not nearly as many as Narwhal) and six new roles: the One Who Won’t Move On (headed for a breakdown of some sort), the One Who Can’t Wait to Move On (the too-cool-for-school kid), the One With Everything to Lose (kid with a rough home life), the One With Nothing to Lose (kid at the end of their rope), the One Who Doesn’t Belong (freaks, geeks, and delinquents), and the One Everyone Likes (popular kid).
Still not enough? There’s more! In the featurette Retro Heroes & Villains, John Adamus explores the period of overlap between pulp and noir with two-fisted, desperate storylines. No new rules here, just six new roles based on radio dramas, classic comics, and adventure magazines. We’ve got the Amazon (badass woman, not necessarily Diana of Themyscira), the Hornet, the Ranger (principled vigilante), the Chaos (crazy villain), the Phantom, and the Shadow. None of the linked roles are literally those characters, of course…
“Well that’s fine,” you say, “but what about Blade Runner? That’s noir.” John Adamus is a step ahead of you. In the featurette Star Noir (or maybe Stwoir?), the rules are stretched to include not just the rain-drenched streets of cyberpunk noir but the laser swords and needle-shaped spaceships of 1930s space opera. Some allowances have to be made but the six new roles show that this noir setting could happen a long time ago and far, far away. Here are the names and some example abilities, see if you can spot the subtle references: the Farmkid (with such actions as “Whiny Is a Force Power” and “That’s Impossible”), the Scoundrel (with action options like “Never Tell Me the Odds” and my favorite: “I Know”), the Royal (surprisingly versatile with actions like “You’re My Only Hope”), the Sage (know-it-all weirdo with actions like “From a Certain Point of View”), the Menace (featuring actions like “Apology Accepted”), and the Herald (this one did stump me until I saw “Faulty Circuits”).
As if all that weren’t enough there are many, many appendices that provide even more options. The advice in “Cthulhu Noir” seems pretty interesting, as does the list of noir source material to check out. John Adamus also provides one of the most interesting Example Play sections I’ve ever seen by breaking down the classic films The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon as if they were games of Noir World, from what character is what role to act-by-act breakdowns of the group’s decisions. There are handouts and a collection of fifteen suggested collections of roles (necessary when there are so many) for interesting games.
A lot of work clearly went into this and it really shows. Author John Adamus has gone way, way out of his way to help you run a noir game and I think it will win over even those (like me) who are only mildly interested in noir films. Maybe even those barely interested. It’s a solid book, artfully put together and expertly written. If you’re considering it at all, I say go for it immediately.