The Next Game: The Usual Suspects – Published Neo-Noir Settings for RPG’s

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on the next weekly game I’m planning to run, you likely know that it will be a neo-noir game using the Savage Worlds Deluxe rules (slightly modified). As I’ve said previously, I will be using Hero Games’ Hudson City: The Urban Abyss for the geographic setting of the game, and many of the setting rules and style from Fun-Sized Games’  Streets of Bedlam setting. However, these two products are not the only settings available for neo-noir gaming. There are actually five settings that would be a good fit for a neo-noir game, though some of them require a bit of tweaking.

Haven: City of Violence (2003)HavenCoV

Population: 5,455,082 (That’s oddly specific…)

This hyperviolent setting was released in 2003 by Louis Porter, Jr. Designs, Inc. and is currently out of print, with the exception of a D20 Modern edition. The entire setting actually has been excised from the publisher’s website like it never happened.

This writing pertains to the original edition, which used its own system. Once you get beyond the wacky “personal statement” in the front of the book, and the fact that the Game Master is referred to as the G.O.D., or Game Operations Director, you can get into the meat of the setting.

haven-city-violence-e1265547008697At the end of the Introduction, there is a useful “Entertainment Source Reference Guide” that lists books, comic books, television series, and films that the author says provide the correct tone for the setting. It’s a pretty diverse list, with everything from neo-noir and straight action thrillers, to anime, kung-fu action films, and post-apocalyptic films. I won’t even go into the list of recommended music. Keep in mind that these lists were written in 2003, so many of the newer entertainments that would fit the list aren’t there.

After the Introduction is one of a number of decent fiction segments that weave throughout the book. Then, we have a description of the city of Haven and some of the personalities players will find in the city. After that, the book moves to character creation. The system is decent. There is nothing earth-shattering here. I do plan to mine the Benefits & Drawback found here and see if any of them can be converted to Edges & Hindrances for Savage Worlds. After the Character Creation chapter, the book moves on to detail the rest of the system. Honestly, I didn’t read much of this section, because I won’t be using it. Finally, there is a decent Game Master’s section as the final chapter, with some good advice for running this type of setting.

Though the city of Haven is fairly well detailed in this book, and in the supplement Haven: Path of Rage, it was disappointing to find only one map of the city. Located after the final chapter of the book, the map is not very detailed at all.

As far as the overall tone of the setting fitting the style of neo-noir I plan to run, I found Haven too chaotic and violent. The city does indeed live up to its name, as it assumes a level of violence that makes Grand Theft Auto games and Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005) seem like kiddie rides. Many things found in Haven: City of Violence and Haven: Path of Rage could be imported if the level of violence is toned down to match neo-noir, instead of just an almost constant gun battle of a game.

Page Count: 134

Hudson City: The Urban Abyss (2004)

Population: 5.3 million

This setting book for the Dark Champions role-playing game, using the Hero System, was released by DOJ, Inc./Hero Games, and can be found both in print and PDF.

After the standard introduction, the book starts with the history of the city before moving to a sort of combination atlas and travel guide for all of the city’s various districts. Following this, is an excellent chapter called A Day In the Life, that details just about every facet of life in Hudson City, from television and radio stations, to sports teams and cultural events.

Chapter four details the law enforcement systems of Hudson City, and is extremely valuable for a neo-noir game. Chapter five, Predators, handles Hudson City’s crime and criminal organizations. After these two chapters, the book details a few key locations around the city before ending with a fairly standard Game Master’s section.

The reason Hudson City is one of my favorite modern settings is the level of detail. With the purchase of the optional map, available in PDF, you can zoom in to an almost street level view of any portion of the city. Every street in the city is easy to find and many businesses and locations are given at least a little detail. There is a guide to types of locations you can find in each section of the city, so the GM can easily come up with a business or location on the fly, while maintaining consistency. For example, if you want a ubiquitous cookie-cutter fast food joint to show up in various locations around the city, you can consult p. 123 for examples and easily reference Burger Monster. A quick Google search can even provide the GM with suitable logos and photos to use for Burger Monster restaurants in your game. I absolutely LOVE that level of detail, because it saves me prep time and makes the setting easier to run on-the-fly. I don’t have to make as much stuff up and then write down or try to remember what I used where and when. There are also tons of plot seeds tucked into the margins throughout the book, and pages of them in the GM’s section.Burger Monster

This setting also takes a bit of tweaking, because it is written for a low-power to no-power superhero game in a different system than Savage Worlds. Since I won’t be converting any NPC’s directly, this isn’t much of a problem. As far as the genre, the setting is close enough to neo-noir (and even suggests it as a campaign type) to file off the superhero serial numbers and use with little effort.

Page Count: 278

Bedlam City (2009)

Population: 120,000-500,000

This is an “Iron Age” superheroes setting available for both Savage Worlds and Mutants & Masterminds Superlink by Plain Brown Wrapper Games. It is available in PDF, but there is no print copy available.

Plain-Brown-Wrapper-Games-Bedlam-City-Campaign-SettingThis book begins with a series of questions to introduce the basics of Bedlam City. The art style in this book is distracting, but the text is readable and it is fairly well-organized. After introducing the basics of the city, there is a map of Bedlam City. It is better than the map in Haven: City of Violence, but nowhere near the quality of the Hudson City maps.

Following the maps, there is a section briefly detailing the neighborhoods of Bedlam City. After the neighborhoods are presented, there is an excellent section detailing some of the city’s important location, with a couple also having a small map of the location. Following this section are sections on the history of the city, and important NPC’s that can be found in Bedlam City.

The next section of the book details the criminal justice system in Bedlam City. This section is fairly useful for a neo-noir game, and can be integrated fairly well as a supplement to the information in Hudson City: The Dark Abyss. Information can be found on police radio frequencies and each of the precincts in the city, as well as some law enforcement NPC’s and vehicles. Following the law enforcement section are sections on hospitals and emergency services, utilities, public transportation, schools, businesses, etc., which can also be useful for a neo-noir version of Bedlam City. After these sections is a section on organized crime in Bedlam City, followed by profiles of some of Bedlam City’s criminals.

Finally, the book concludes with the requisite Game Master’s section. This one is adequate and contains a few useful ideas. There are also a number of metaplots, heroes and villians, GM secrets, and some adventures in this section.

Since this setting is designed for “Iron Age” supers games, some of the material will require some tweaking. That said, like Hudson City, it’s fairly easy to boil things down to their neo-noir roots and get some useful information for that type of game. Unfortunately, the setting contains too much humor for a neo-noir setting and this can take away from some of the other solid things that could be useful. Still, with a little work, the setting can be modified to make it suitable for neo-noir gaming. Or, just take what you can use from it and import it into another setting, like I plan to do. There are also a number of supplements available for this setting which also contain useful tidbits.

Page Count: 394

Wellstone City (2010)Game-Header-Wellstone-City

Population: 6 million

This neo-noir setting is available for both Savage Worlds and the Aether system by Silver Gryphon Games. It is available in both print and PDF.

Wellstone-City-Wellstone-City1Wellstone City is a setting written by Kevin Rohan and made for neo-noir gaming. After a short introduction and an equally short piece of fiction, the book gets right down to business with setting trappings for Savage Worlds, including new Edges and Hindrances. Following another piece of short fiction, there is a section on gear.

Chapter three is where we get to the meat of the setting. This section covers Wellstone city itself. It begins with a map that contains very little detail other than the locations of each of the city’s districts. This is followed by an overview of the city, after which each district is detailed. The district maps that are found throughout this section contain nothing worthy of note other than the overall shape of the district and one or two key locations. Other than that, these are just grey blobs. Aside from the lack of map detail, there are some interesting highlights in these sub-sections that can be quite useful in a neo-noir game. Rounding out the chapter is a detailed history of the city.

The next chapter details some of the city’s organizations, including law enforcement and criminal organizations. This is followed by some useful NPC’s, and the book is rounded out by including the neat little adventure, “Public Transit Assassins.”

One drawback of this book, at least for my game, is that the setting places the characters in the role of criminals, instead of as the “good guys” (well, as good as neo-noir good guys can be anyway). This could be an interesting take on the genre, but it isn’t one that I plan on using at this time. So, there is some tweaking required in all of the Wellstone City products to modify the role of the characters as good-ish guys instead of hardened criminals. With that said, I really like this setting, and I wish it were longer… much longer. I’d love to see it expanded and reissued with options for good guy characters, better maps, and more details.

As with most of the settings I’ve listed, the violence needs to be toned down just a bit and more investigation should be worked into the setting.

Page Count: 72

Streets of Bedlam (2012)hqdefault SoB

Population: Unknown

This is a neo-noir setting written for Savage Worlds by Jason L. Blair and released by Fun Sized Games. Streets of Bedlam is available in both print and PDF.

SoB_SidebarThis book begins with an introduction that tells you what to expect from the setting in no uncertain terms. It tells you what it is, where it is, when it is, who the characters are (in general), and what they are going to do (in general). After the introduction, the book give a brief history of the two “sister cities” that make up what is collectively known as Bedlam, and then details some pf the city’s important locations and organizations. This section concludes with a useful listing of businesses. Like I said earlier, I love these lists because they make it incredibly easy to come up with businesses on-the-fly.

The second chapter of the book is all about the characters and presents this setting’s greatest strength, the archetypes. These are probably the best Savage Worlds hack I’ve seen, and are perfect for neo-noir. Chapter three follows this with setting rules, including new Skills, Edges & Hindrances, and some other excellent rules for the system. The one rule I don’t like is Dramatic Damage. Instead of making the violence level equal to that of the majority of neo-noir films, this rule makes the violence level over-the-top and cartoonish. Obviously, my dislike of this rule is personal preference, but I like more gritty realism than having characters get their bones crushed and skin flayed off on a regular basis, while taking no actual consequential damage, just to have them back to normal in the next scene. With that said, it’s easy enough to just leave this rule out of the game completely. Problem solved. Rounding out this section is some excellent advice on scene and story creation.

Mariachi Mexican RestaurantThe final two sections of the book contain a wealth of NPC’s based on the Kickstarter backers, and an excellent mini-campaign called “The Things We Do For Money.” I will defininitely be using parts of these sections in my game.

Overall, this is a fantastic setting for a neo-noir game. In my opinion, it is the best of the bunch. The only thing holding it back are the lack of detail given to the city of Bedlam itself and the lack of any maps. I know the idea is to keep things flexible for the GM, but I like maps and details to make my life easier. However, this is easily fixed by using the geography of Hudson City for my game. This way, I get all the neat crunchy bits of Streets of Bedlam along with all the incredible detail of Hudson City: The Urban Abyss. This mix of settings is easy enough to accomplish with only a little work. Anything referred to in Streets of Bedlam as being located in Bedford is located north of the Stewart River in Hudson City, and anything referred to as being located in Lamrose is on the south side of the Stewart River. The Stewart River replaces the Artifice River in my hybrid setting. Most locations in Bedlam have a rough Hudson City equivalent. For example, Bricktown becomes The Strip in Hudson City. Though I plan to have the area less locked down by Queenie, with her and the Valkyries still struggling for control with looser organization than is assumed in Streets of Bedlam.

Page Count: 264

Other Options

There are, of course, other options than the settings presented above for neo-noir games:

Hudson City night 1You could use a real-world city such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, or Los Angeles. All of these cities would be suitable for a neo-noir game setting. As a bonus, printed maps are readily available, as are guidebooks to the city, online maps, and lots of photos to enrich your game. I’ve used a couple of these cities as game settings in the past, and there always seems to be a player at the table who’s been there, has family there, has hung out there, and claims to know the city better than you do, despite your disclaimers that this “ain’t the real world” version of the city in question. I like to go with a city that doesn’t exist in the real world, so I can create, change, and destroy as I see fit. I can also make shit up on-the-fly without anybody knowing any better.

Another option would be to use a setting designed for a completely different type of game than neo-noir. There are a few other modern cities out there designed for near-future, near-past, or superheroic games that could work reasonably well with a bit of effort. In a similar vein, you could take the Coen Bros. route and set your neo-noir game in a smaller town. They’ve shown that neo-noir doesn’t have to take place in the big city. Pinebox_thumb2Smaller towns and cities can be hives of criminality and corruption too. One candidate for this type of setting that I really like is 12toMidnight’s Pinebox, TX setting. You could easily remove the supernatural horror elements, keep the map, locations, and colorful NPC’s, and convert it to a small-town neo-noir setting with fairly little effort. Since a huge feature of this setting is East Texas State University (ETSU), you could easily create a neo-noir game in the style of Brick (2005) or The Killing of a High School President (2008), just transplanted to the college level. The criminal organizations that could take root in the college environment are virtually limitless, as are the intrigue and drama that could occur. Also, the setting’s allusion to a “pine box” works just as well in a neo-noir setting as it does in a horror setting.

I hope these mini-reviews were useful if you’re planning to run a neo-noir game. Please check out the products listed above, and let me know if you’ve used any of them for your games.


Darren is a life-long geek, an avid gamer (both tabletop role-playing and video games), and a writer and editor. He lives in South Carolina with his wife Barbara and his three rescued Siberian Huskies.

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