Playing a Noir Game (City of Mist TTRPG)
Picture it: the horizon of a city at night, lit by a thousand lights that only serve to create more shadows. Corruption reigns as those who truly control the city do so in secret. Hope is a fleeting light, as fleeting as the glow at the end of a cigarette. And as a femme fatale walks into his office, a private investigator finds himself in a world of trouble.
These are the aesthetics of noir, a style that has persisted and spread throughout many different artistic mediums. In the 40’s and 50’s, noir was just a term used for dark crime movies. But as our culture changed and evolved, so too did noir itself. Now we have noir movies, tv shows, videogames, and of course, our favorite noir tabletop roleplaying game, City of Mist.
You can play City of Mist in whatever way you want, but its themes and mechanics are primarily inspired by the noir genre. On this week’s video, we’ll unpack just what noir is and how you can run a proper noir game!
What is Noir?
Now, it’s tricky to define what noir is in the modern age. As our culture has grown, noir went from being a subgenre of film to a broad aesthetic that’s defined more by its general feeling rather than its specific elements. To better understand it, let’s start from the beginning.
In the 1930’s, the Great Depression left many Americans with a generational trauma that left them with a pervasive sense of cynicism. In the 40’s, World War II would follow soon after. Men left their homes to die on the front lines, women took up new jobs to support the war effort, and in the aftermath of the war, society became forever changed.
This mix of cynicism and post-war disillusionment led to the rise of film noir. These movies would often feature jaded anti-hero protagonists–usually a hard-boiled detective or private eye–ending up in over their heads. As they struggle to solve a mystery or deal with an injustice, they find themselves embroiled in a complex web of criminal gangs and corrupt systems. Film noir would also be defined by its rainy scenes and high contrast lighting, depicting a moody, dark world that was often confined to the streets of a city.
All of these elements made film noir visually recognizable, but it was that pervasive sense of cynicism and moral ambiguity that truly came to define it. Even as film noir went out of style sometime in the 50’s, the trappings of the genre would be carried on into new works and subgenres.
How Did Noir Change?
In the 1980’s, neo/neon noir would revive the genre with films like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. As anxieties about technology also began to spread, tech noir arrived on the scene with films like James Cameron’s Terminator and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. These subgenres took the same themes of anxiety in a morally gray world and updated them past the aesthetics of 1930’s Chicago crime.
Noir would also leap from the silver screen and into a variety of other mediums. Today we have noir television like Peaky Blinders and The Defenders and noir video games like L.A. Noire and The Wolf Among Us.
As noir spread to different mediums and merged with different genres, it became harder to define what noir truly is. And yet, that emotional throughline of cynicism and moral ambiguity is still there, just updated to different times, worlds, and anxieties. Noir was no longer a checklist of tropes to fill out, but an aesthetic to achieve.
Running a Noir Game
For starters, your group will want to decide what type of noir their City will take place in. Pages 51 and 52 of the Player’s Guide list examples such as the classic True Noir of the 1930’s and the Neon Noir of the 1980’s, but you can also set your game in the Dreary Present or in a Generic Comic-Book Metropolis. Once you’ve chosen a time period, your group will have a better idea of the nature of the setting and what kind of characters to create.
Next up is the noir aesthetic. Noir stories are dripping with visual style, so MC’s will want to emphasize the atmosphere of the City during play. Page 78 of the MC Toolkit has an in-depth guide with examples on how to narrate City of Mist effectively. In particular, be sure to use dramatic descriptions to introduce locations, and use every bit of the setting to convey a mood. Gloomy weather, neon signs, and even specific smells like cigar smoke or a wafting perfume can all be used to transport your group into that noir headspace. Harsh lighting is also a cornerstone of the noir genre, so always think about the play between light and shadow in any given scene.
The stories and cases you play out also contribute to the noir mood. Noir stories are rarely straightforward and often feature mysteries, morally gray characters, and situations that are not what they seem at first glance. The story arc book Nights of Payne Town has ten different cases that follow these rules, ranging from the murder mystery Killing Her Softly to the criminal turf wars of Albion Awakens. For more info on these cases, be sure to check out our video for Nights of Payne Town.
But arguably more important than the mystery of the case itself are the internal mysteries of the player characters. Noir stories delve deep into the psyches of their characters, which is why so many of them feature voiceover monologues where the protagonist talks about what’s on their mind. In worlds filled with greed and hopelessness, it’s only natural to examine the motives of those who continue on.
Thankfully, City of Mist has quite a few mechanics to achieve this effect. Just like a classic crime film, every session starts with a voiceover monologue from one of the PC’s, giving them the spotlight to talk about what their character is feeling. Every character also comes up with Mysteries they want to pursue and Identities they want to portray during character creation, giving natural motives to each PC. And during gameplay, there are MC Moves that require the PC’s to answer provoking questions about their characters. The more our “heroes” examine themselves in the mirror, the more they may question who they truly are.
We hope this video will help when running a successful noir session of City of Mist. For more tips, be sure to check out the City of Mist Player’s Guide and MC Toolkit, along with the story arc book Nights of Payne Town for all kinds of noir storytelling.
Do you have any other questions about running a noir game? Let us know in the comments, on social media, or on the City of Mist Discord. Until then, have fun!