Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tommy's Take on Sword Noir

Depending on just how much of a FATE game you consider Sword Noir to be, it may be the smallest FATE rulebook that I have read (by a mile).

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Sword Noir is a standalone fantasy RPG claiming inspirations from a number of sources, from FATE to Savage Worlds to the PDQ system. RPGNow has the PDF available for $4.99 or a POD softcover for $10.73...and you can download the system itself (the Sword's Edge system) for free.

Despite only being 74 pages (RPGnow says the print version is 104 pages, but this seems to be due to the dimensions of the book), the PDF has all the major bells and whistles, including bookmarks and clickable table of contents for easy navigation. Sword Noir is designed to emulate "hard-boiled fantasy", specifically citing works like the Lankhmar series, as well as Conan.

Qualities are ranked on a scale, from -6 to +8, in increments of two. Characters are divided up into Heroes (important named characters), Regulars (less important named characters) and Minions (nameless mooks, typically). Heroes have a number of Qualities, named by the players. For instance, Concept is a Quality (such as Wily Ranger). After Concept, you create a Background Quality, like Criminal on the Run. Then Faculty, essentially an important this case, we're going with Deadshot (linked to Agility) for bow use. Now you need a Flaw, like Hot Temper.

Every character has five Traits: Physique, Agility, Wit, Charisma and Will, with all of them starting off Average. Here, the player gets 6 ranks to spread out among the five traits OR to buy more Qualities, or to raise other Qualities (which start off Good (+2)).

Let's bump up Agility to Good (+2), as well as Wit and Will. Add a new Quality "Tracking His Prey" (linked to Wit) at Good for four Advances. With those two remaining advances, let's bump Agility and Will up to Great (+4).

Next the character gets assigned items, which includes anything reasonable, like bows, daggers, etc. Anything they need to fit the concept. Anything too special should be created with a Quality. Characters also need Pivots, which are important goals, such as "Bring My Former Partners Down". In play, you can also gain Weaknesses and Reputation (the latter of which can provide bonuses and penalties).

Fortune Points can be gained by generally attempting to be good and noble, and can allow for things like automatic successes.

The basic mechanic is rolling 2d10, adding them together, and adding any relevant Qualities. Rolling a natural 2 is a critical failure and a natural 20 is a critical success. Interestingly, a Critical Failure can allow you to attempt to increase the Quality or Trait applied to the roll as compensation for the failure, or you can also take a temporary Weakness to avoid the consequences of Failure. A Critical Success allows the character to gain a very limited, but permanent, Stunt tied to a relevant Quality.

Combat is pretty straightforward, comparing attack rolls with defense rolls, and if the attacker succeeds, the degree of success determines damage. If they get all the way up to a Legendary success, the defender gets a Doom, which means they either die, get a Weakness or lose a relevant Rank somewhere.

Similarly, each character can take three Damage ranks (each rank gives -2 to combat actions and -1 to non combat actions), at which point they fall unconscious. At four ranks, they gain a Doom as above.

The Magic system is interesting, as their is a penalty in place, but it is for SUCCESSFUL uses of magic and not failure. The more you successfully cast spells, the more it can make you insane over time, ultimately costing you your soul.

Wealth is abstracted into Lifestyle, which gives a baseline for your character's standard of living.

With mechanics out of the way, the author dives into the Sword Noir "setting" as it were, a flawed word of flawed heroes. The chapter hits on important bits like the corrupting influence of magic and the brutality of violence, both of which are supported by the mechanics, but also notes that the atmosphere is really a product of both GM and player buy-in to get that "life is cheap, crapsack world" feel, which is certainly true.

A section on Sword Noir adventures really only tackles the subject in the broadest sense, focusing more closely on bringing the group together and giving them a reason to stay together than anything. Personally, for a Noir feel, I would use the hook from the TV show Leverage for that first adventure: Benefactor hires them (or hires one of them to assemble the rest of them), and then royally screws them over, setting them up for a fall. From there, they can swear vengeance (at least as long as it takes to bring the benefactor down...bonus points if the screwing was so complete that they have nowhere safe to turn to outside of the team).

A sample city is also provided, complete with important residents like gang leaders, kingpins and even honest to goodness Good Cops.

Also included is an adventure in which an old acquaintance asks the PCs to find his lost love, who isn't what she seems...but with a uniquely fantasy twist.

The end of the book is a series of premade characters, a blank character sheet, a map of the city of Everthorn (the sample city mentioned above) and a character tracker for the GM to use.

WHAT WORKS: A very professional, yet low-key, presentation, especially for the price. The art and layout aren't fancy, but they both fit the feel of the product. The system is a nice little mish-mash of various systems, but thought has actually gone into how to make the pieces fit, rather than just jamming them together. I like the Critical Failure and Success bits, as well as the corrupting influence of magic.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I wasn't a huge fan of the city or adventure, just personal preference I guess...although I did like the cops being "incorruptible" for a change. I would probably have preferred a more generalized approach to building fantasy noir adventures instead. The author has explained the reasoning behind the lack of nonhumans on the company website, but I still would have preferred a treatment of them. There were a couple of spots where the writing could have been tighter, and frankly, calling NPCs "NCs" (Narrative characters) just bugged the crap out of me.

CONCLUSION: Minor quibbles aside, I really liked what I read. The Qualities/Aspects stuff is well defined, I dig the take on magic, there is no abstract "stress" in place of damage, and there are some cool bits like gaining advancements off of critical failures. Still, a great game packed into a small package. With a "monster" hack, it might even be a prime candidate for a worthwhile Ravenloft replacement. Highly recommended if you wanna get dirty with your next fantasy game.


  1. Good review: it covered everything I asked myself when I saw the product on Drivethru RPG, but could not answer without buying~

  2. Good review: It covered all the questions I asked myself when I saw the product on Drivethru RPG, but could not answer without buying.

    Now I know if I want to buy it or not~ Thanks!

  3. This looks like an interesting game. With that price, I may have to explore it myself.

  4. No monsters. It is intended with entirely human antagonists.

  5. Very well done for a $5 game, in my opinion.

  6. I like the idea of no monsters. One of the things I like about Barbarians of Lemuria is that it is human-centric.

  7. I don't have an issue with it being human-centric myself, though the option of monsters would have been nice. That said, Sword's Edge Publishing apparently has a viking game upcoming that should help scratch that itch.