Noir Light, Noir Bright

Rainy nightIf anything can be said about my taste in characters in literature, it’s that I love lowlifes. I love the barely-redeemable cowardly rat, the street urchin who’s too smart for their own good and the once noble hero who has fallen so far from grace he couldn’t catch a bus back there. (Oh, and my personal favorite: The ruthless corporate exec who brings nothing of value to the table and expects everything to go their way.)

This is often influenced by my love for Noir fiction, from which the Cyberpunk genre borrows heavily. My Shadowrun games are filled with human refuse and the ambitiously amoral, creatures of dubious ethical leanings and definite military hardware. As NPCs (like the supporting characters from film and page that they are inspired from) they help assert a backdrop of desperation and danger that offers an immediate devil’s bargain to the players: If these people are willing to stoop to such levels to get ahead, are you willing to do the same? Even in a game where the player-characters are little more than murderers-for-hire, everyone has a line that they won’t cross.

But what if you want to play one of those wretches whose every movement covers things in a thin coat of slime, who endure countless punishments for the most simple of rewards? So I guess I mean: What if you’re playing Fiasco?

My advice is simple but seemingly contrary to the design of this archetype: Pick something that your character really, really cares about and never let that go. Everything else, every moral quandary or significant dilemma is influenced by, and secondary to the goal of, that thing they care about. This will manifest in action as a character who possesses an ethical compass that has no direction and whose motivations are suspect at best. To others it may seem like your character has no low they won’t stoop to, but the truth is that they simply know what is important to them. (I once played in a game where a gun-for-hire was obsessed with owning nice shoes. It seems silly, but it actually humanized the character. Or maybe I need to address my own affection for fine footwear.)

So, for example, maybe your character seems greedy. Perhaps it’s because their grandfather always wanted to go back to Buenos Aires and you’ve decided to sprinkle the old man’s ashes there. That costs money! Or maybe there’s a sick family member who needs an operation, or your lover owes money to some really bad people with ridiculous Russian accents. Whichever you choose, that is the reason that villainy is permitted. You’re not a slimeball of a person, you just have priorities.

It’s just like Grandpa Santiago always said: “If you wanna make an omelette, um… look, sometimes people gotta die.”

So what about you? Is there a character that you’ve played that took a turn for the worse in search of a noble goal? Or, any good stories about Dread or Fiasco going to Hell in a handbasket faster than you expected? (Use discretion here, I don’t want to have to wash my eyes with windex.)


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About the Author
David is a human, standing at average human size with human features. He is not an android, that would be ridiculous. He is fond of horror movies, so-bad-it’s-good movies, stand-up comedy and humor sometimes inappropriate for a given setting but within the accepted parameters of average human interaction. David reads H.P. Lovecraft with human eyes, speaks about Cyberpunk with his human mouth (using vocal chords, not embedded speakers) listens to podcasts with his human ears and typed this from an undisclosed location with his human hands. He was created in New England.

1 comment on “Noir Light, Noir Bright

  1. Syren says:

    I tend to play people with special morality often. One who started good but took bad turns often was likely my character and namesake Syren from Exalted.

    He was an Eclipse caste and I built him to be both social, and capable of organizing a city to function efficiently. He was thus very face, and very intellectual, but a bit below average in combat.

    But some of the most influential of the rest of the party tended to approach events fist first. Which bothered him, they also tended not to look at the bigger picture, while he was very pragmatic and forward thinking. So more than once he had betrayed the team thinking that it would be better if he took off with the MacGuffin alone than deal with these hyperviolent psychos. Even by the end of the game as we ran it he was working to try to find another way to save Creation by his standards, and to ruin the plans of what could only loosely be called his “Circle.”

    On the other hand I more often like to play villains whom are on the side of good. Alastor my character from Anima: Beyond Fantasy channeled the spirits of Emperor Palpatine, the traditional image of 40k psykers, and a power hungry madman all into one. People liked to work with him though, because he was loyal, and smart, and often despite being insane and prideful was capable of pulling out the right thing at the right time.

    Also he was my luckiest character, I’ve never been more lucky than when I was playing him.

    Now the concept of him is he is so powerful, and so ugly, and so often judged and hated on first sight he made himself out to be the villain. Because someone like him could never be a hero, but getting people who actually considered him a friend sent him off kilter. The goodness came from acceptance, and understanding how his power may in fact accidentally hurt the people he cared about.

    Before he died he was a technical pacifist, since he could control whether an attack killed an opponent or not. He was more prone to giving people chances. And a small part of him still wanted to conquer the world, but more like Dr. Doom where it was because he felt no one else could truly help the world at his level.

    I prefer things like that, where humanity is in all of us but it is facilitated by the people around you. Character A was a good person, but due to being around bad people he did bad things to do good things. Character B was a bad person, but due to being around good people he did bad things to do good things. Different start, same moral ambiguity.

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