Introducing SETTING Episodes: Noir

Published by Blackwind on

How do you introduce a player character? This step is often missed or overlooked, a character’s past or personality simply written outside of the game by drafting a background, missing out on a great occasion to intertwine the quirks, flaws and key features of the protagonists with the story they are playing.

In the Blackwind system this has been resolved with the introduction of SETTING episodes. While SETTING episodes are also used to introduce major information of all kinds, such as the Main Antagonist, the Context or the Themes of the story, one of their most important and frequent uses is to showcase who the heroes of the story are.

One of the main differences from classic roleplay systems is that the Game Master, or DIRECTOR, usually has no control over how to organize these short scenes. The players may come up with their own locations, decide how exactly the scene will play out, which non player characters (NPCs) will be present by improvising them and their dialogues on the spot.

Another difference is how these introductions intertwine with the main plot. Players are rewarded for packing as much details as they can in these “shorts” sometimes doubling as the introduction of a compelling protagonist and at the same time of the same, other features that appeared in other SETTING episodes, in some cases even prompting the DIRECTOR to spawn subplots or introduce tweaks to accomodate particularly interesting ideas.

As an example, let’s pretend three players are starting a new Noir Adventure, set in the city of Los Angeles during the fifties. After drafting a CASTING list, and deciding that the characters will be part of a CREW of LAPD policemen, they pick three roles:

– A violent Officer
– A corrupt Sergeant
– An honest Lieutenant

While the adventure could directly begin with character introductions, the DIRECTOR decides to open the adventure with a classic signboard (fist SETTING episode): the opening narration of a scandalistic journalist writing his latest piece, sarcastically describing how the ritzy and high class surface of the city (CONTEXT) hides a sprawling underworld of violent crimes (background THEME) and corrupt policemen (main THEME).

At this point the circumstances, time period, physical location and what the story will be about are clear. The players do not need to wait any longer, and may immediately start playing their scenes.

The first player decides to set his scene in a car, at night, together with his partner (support NPC). They talk to each other while watching a violent argument in the house at the other side of the street, where a man is manhandling a frightened woman. In this case all NPCs (the cop partner, the violent man and the woman) are all controlled by the player, not the game master. The cop partner and his dialogue are used to portray the features of the main character and the indifference of fellow policemen: he pokes fun at the protagonist (while also giving him the name “Bud”) for seeing criminals around every corner, and just laughs at him when he decides to intervene. The violent man is used to show the main character’s own violent attitude when a fight breaks out between the two, while the woman is later used to show a kinder side, by giving her money and asking her if she can go anywhere safe.

In this short scene the player showed that:
– His character’s name is “Bud”
– He is violent and aggressive
– He butts in to break fights, even when his peers are indifferent
– He dislikes violence against women
– He is seen by his peers as a bit of a loose cannon, and excessively righteous

The second player decides to set his scene at a party. This is important, because while “Bud” was on duty, this character is busy elsewhere- which is already telling of what we are about to see. His chosen support NPC is the pretty woman he is dancing with, who immediately tells his name (“Jack”) and asks about his job, letting him brag about being a consultant for a popular TV drama. The two are interrupted by the NPC the Director introduced during the opening signboard, the scandalistic journalist. In this case, the player may make up this connection on the spot and without the DIRECTOR’s approval, and unless the DIRECTOR has any particular reason not to let this happen (such as glaring plot holes) the friendship between the two will be canon from this point onwards. The journalist NPC is then used to hold a conversation about “pinching” an actor for illegal possession of marjuana, resulting in a scoop for the journalist and a cut of the profits for the Sergeant. The Sergeant agrees, and the scene ends.

In this short scene the player showed that:
– His character’s name is “Jack”
– He is corrupt and willing to abuse his position to gain benefits, women, and money
– He is a womanizer
– He is self absorbed and vain
– He is not fully committed to being a policeman, moonlighting whenever convenient

The third player decides that his character is on duty at the LAPD headquarters, engaged with his two support NPCs: two journalists that are interviewing him. Through these two, we find out his name is “Ed Exley” and that he is the son of a well-known, now deceased, LAPD hero. In this case, the conversation is interrupted by a DIRECTOR controlled NPC, Captain Dudley Smith- yet unknown to the players, the Main Antagonist of the story. The two improvise a conversation in which Ed is able to contrast his own, uncompromising, honest but somewhat naive code with the Captain’s apparently pragmatic methods, who are already hinted to be borderline criminal, and somewhat sinister. An additional detail comes up: Ed is wearing glasses, a symbol that his disposition is that of a man of diplomacy rather than action, and he is told that he should not wear them.

In this short scene the player showed that:
– His character’s name is “Ed Exley”
– He is the son of a LAPD hero
– His father was killed on the job, and the culprit was never arrested
– He is a straight, honest, but somewhat naive cop
– He abides to the letter of the law
– He is not a man of action (glasses)
– He needs to toughen up and outgrow his meek disposition to work in the department (removing the glasses)

This last case is something of an exception, as the DIRECTOR chose to use this player-made SETTING episode to introduce the villain of the story.

The NPCs that appeared during these SETTING episodes may never appear again. However, the DIRECTOR may or may not choose to bring them up again later on, create subplots or let the player characters occasionally interact with them -if they so wish-. Their initial purpose was just to serve as a mirror of the main character’s personality, but it is not rare to see a relatively minor character ascend to more important roles later on.

The Blackwind Core manual details a gamut of features that may be introduced during these SETTING episodes. An example would be FATAL FLAWS, such as Bud’s impulsiveness or Ed being haunted by the death of his father, but there are many other alternatives, from showing exceptional ability in one particular skill to character goals, a personal code, religion or philosophy, and much more. These are both useful to craft a compelling character in a matter of minutes, and to interact with our game mechanics, where a protagonist’s might is deeply embedded with their narrative weight.

Does this plot sound familiar? If so, it is because we just simulated a simplified, roleplayed version of the first ten minutes of “L.A. Confidential (1997)”

– Allan Kelley

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