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I ran a couple of Shadowrun games at Dexcon, my first time GMing at a con. It's not my first time running Shadowrun; I based the games off of a couple jobs my players did in a then-ongoing campaign. The players at the con had a good time; but, I made it fairly cinematic, and one of the players commented that they were used to a more "gray raincoat" style of game.

I wanted to have high-speed car chases, and action-packed combats; but, I also want to be true to the theme of Shadowrun. I think the player's comment had some merit, and I'd like to make the game feel a little more dark, and grim.

Part of the problem was that I needed to be more diligent about having Lone Star jump on them, after a high-profile combat scene. What else can I do to tweak the theme of my game, and make it seem a little more dystopian?

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Applause. When a GM or gaming group has transcended rote and wants to reach for style, things are going well, to say the least. +++ for questions of this general type, and for solutions to same! A very mature pov, and one to be encouraged. –  ExTSR Aug 20 '10 at 18:01

7 Answers 7

up vote 45 down vote accepted

When I think of noir, I think about the following elements: crime, betrayal, temptation (often sexual), urban settings, pessimism, cynicism, and no-win situations. There's also a host of cinematic techniques that don't translate precisely into non-visual mediums, so I'll leave those aside for now.

Shadowrun has crime and urban settings covered, so that's easy. For pessimism, cynicism, and temptation, I'd look at my NPCs. Almost every one of them should reflect those traits in some way. They don't all have to be pessimistic; in fact, some of them should be defiantly optimistic, but that should be something other NPCs comment on. That'll bring home the point that it's a pessimistic world. And everyone should be capable of being tempted by something. Everyone has to have a price.

Betrayal and no-win situations are trickier, because you don't want to kill the fun of the game and if the PCs are betrayed all the time, they're going to wind up expecting the worst of everyone. This quickly turns into a game of turtle. I'd recommend having a fair number of missions that are the result of betrayal. In other words, the PCs should often be hired by someone who's been betrayed and who needs revenge. They're living in an atmosphere of betrayal rather than being betrayed.

Although it should happen to them once in a while. Don't avoid it all the time, by any means.

Finally, coming back to the visual stuff: play it up in your descriptions. It's raining. It's raining cold, bitter rain. The raindrops are exploding like a child's dreams on the cold, hard pavement. Well, maybe not that last.

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Thanks! Lots of good advice, here. I did feature a betrayal in one of my campaign games. I roped a good RPer friend in as a new character, and hired the other PCs to get him killed, in a "failed" structure hit, so that Mr. Johnson's favorite security contractor would make the 10 o'clock news. =) –  RMorrisey Aug 21 '10 at 0:34
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"and no-win situations" Remember, "It ain't a Shadowrun until the Johnson frags you over twice." –  Pulsehead Aug 21 '10 at 1:51
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Yes. Also: make the players care about some of the (NP)characters. Make them human. It's hard to care about a mook. –  Tobiasopdenbrouw Aug 21 '10 at 19:39
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+1 for the raindrop line. That is great. –  EvilAmarant7x Jun 16 '11 at 16:23
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+1 for suggesting ways of making betrayal a major feature of the setting without constantly betraying the players. In fact, I think I'll favourite this question for the same reason. –  GMJoe Mar 1 '12 at 5:07

One important aspect of noir is that not only does it take place in a dense urban setting, the protagonists are of the setting. They are detectives, reporters, guys who do things for people. They are not down in the gutter, but every day they walk past a lot of people who are in the gutter. They a part of the city. It is their home, and as messed up as it is, they don't want to see it made worse.

They'd scoff at being labeled heroes, because they're so world-weary that they see everything as flawed, even their own motivations. That doesn't mean they can't or won't do good deeds, but they certainly won't see themselves as paragons of virtue. They're just doing the best they can in a tough city.

If the PCs in your game have already risen up the ranks and are living it up in some fancy tower, high above the streets, perhaps something knocks them down off that lofty perch. A friend or mentor from one of the PCs' formative years gets geeked by an unknown assassin. A corp comes down heavy on the gang that kept one of the PCs safe when nobody else would. They find themselves back down on the street, searching for clues, realizing that no matter how much money they have, they'll always belong to this part of the Sprawl.


The use of stark light and deep shadows is a key visual element in noir. Night is for secrets that need uncovering. It hides misdeeds and conceals danger. It feeds uncertainty and fear. Night is when most of the action should take place. Anything plausible to make it more difficult for visually-augmented characters to see at night, the better.

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I'd add to this that some more setting/mood elements can help tip the game into the noir bracket.

  • rain, rain, rain — light mists, strong downpours (rain has it's own moods), slipping in combat, important papers getting wet, it's a damned inconvenience
  • everyone smokes — they're asking characters to bum a light, bars are filled with smoke, people carry cigarette cases
  • everyone drinks like it's going out of style — whisky is drunk neat, everyone has a bottle in their draw, martinis are served with dinner
  • meetings take place in abandoned warehouses, empty car lots, rooftops filled with air compressors
  • use a soundtrack — play noir like music during play (depending on the game of course, but for Shadow Run I'd recommend Ghost in The Shell Soundtrack and Blade Runner, although the latter is a little iconic)
  • language — maybe throw in some 1920's slang
  • colourful NPCs - overplay the NPCs a little more than you would otherwise - they're unremitting in their world views, they are highly suspicious of everyone, they live in a world of slow climbs and rapid downfalls — failure is only a matter of time
  • stark contrasts between wealth and success and poverty and failure— transition scenes from a wealthy ball to a shanty town
  • think of NPCs in terms of noir archetypes — slum lords, crooked cops, femme fatales, bored socialites, scheming businessmen, failed boxers... (even better, make the player characters fit the setting!).
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+1 For mood. Yes, yes, yes. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 9 '10 at 5:41
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+1 for link to 1920 slang, amongst other things. –  Sardathrion Aug 30 '11 at 11:48

This goes for any theme you may try to achieve. Read books done in that theme and take notes. That'll get your head running in noir-mode.

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Any books that you would recommend? –  Sardathrion Feb 29 '12 at 7:19
    
@Sardathrion, my experience with that genre is pretty limited. The most noir thing I've read recently would be Dresden Files. It gets more arcane later on, but the first few books are straight up private investigator work. They translate to gaming very easily too. –  valadil Feb 29 '12 at 16:33

Traditional 'noir' novels and movies tend to follow a pretty similar plot line:

  • hero gets invited to perform a investigative quest of some sort.
  • hero gets given a reason to make it personal and/or high stakes (usually beaten up near the start)
  • hero gets a visit from femme fatale who suggests he drops the case
  • hero follows several leads in seamy locations
  • hero gets captured and tortured to drop the case and rescued by associates
  • hero loads up and goes for the big infiltration which ends up in a denouement shoot out.
  • hero finds out the experiences leave a bitter taste in his mouth.

Sprinkle in some gratuitous sex, violence, seedy low-life NPCs, innocents who get caught up in it (very important this bit - these are the only bright bits in the whole thing that make it ultimately worthwhile for the morally-centred hero), ultra-wealthy victims who turn out to be the perpetrators, and you're done.

PS. If you want to cut it down to its bare essentials, you only need 4 locations too.

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I think there is very little to add to Bryant's response, but I think that one item is quite significant: the act of betrayal by the main character.

The feeling of this genre is often invoked by the atmosphere of disillusionment which pervades the actions and reactions of the main character, even if we do not know precisely what sin they have committed. (Adultery, Murder, Cowardice, etc.)

As the story builds, the character may be offered a chance to redeem themselves in their own eyes, but even this chance at redemption might be seen as a betrayal of those with whom they are associating now.

To really give the players a sense of how the cold, rainy nights of noir feel, when it's three in the morning and one of your friends is missing and presumed dead, you need to have given them the chance to have betrayed that friend. You need to have provided them with temptation to be responsible for putting him in the wrong place at the wrong time. You need to have given them the chance to create doubt in the minds of their allies and acquaintances. Even they should wonder a bit if they inadvertently set things in motion to get their friend killed.

Temptations, with a chance for zero ramifications if everything works out, but terrible results for their consciences and beliefs should things not work out, can be an excellent tool when you are trying to build this atmosphere with your group.

Do more than just hit them with the situations, descriptions, and consequences of noir films and novels. Give them a chance to make the choices which made the great noir characters what they were.

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I absolutely love the point about giving the characters the chance to be the betrayers. Thank you. –  Bryant Aug 27 '10 at 13:23
    
Thanks~ I think you actually touched on it in your excellent response, but I felt there was a chance that those new to the genre could miss it. You do good work~ –  Runeslinger Aug 28 '10 at 1:53

Noir is a set of Tropes, like Bryant said. I find it helpful to write down the tropes I want to use (tv tropes can be quite helpful here) and refer to them as I write adventures, making sure I've incorproated a bunch of them as I go.

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Upvoted this one also, I didn't think of looking through tvtropes. Thanks! –  RMorrisey Aug 21 '10 at 0:31
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TV Tropes is a gamer friend. And maybe a little too addicting. –  anon186 Aug 21 '10 at 10:44

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