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Fae Noir RPG Review

Posted on June 4, 2008 by Flames


Available at Key20.com

Written by Justin Bow
Art by Alexander Bradley, Bayard Russell and Holly Randall
Published by Green Fairy Games (2005)
245 page PDF with one colour illustration (cover page) (no ISBN is included).

It is not a bad idea to yoke together two distinct genres in order to create a media product which occupies a distinctive niche. Of course, the approach does not guarantee that the result will be coherent in terms of meaning or internal logic but, given enough attempts, it should be possible to find a combination that more or less works. Justin Bow, for Green Fairy Games, has joined together the concepts of, as the name suggests, ‘Fae’ and ‘noir.’ The first relates to the magical realist school of folkloric creatures which usually refer to the animist past of human society, which has been prevalent at some stage of development in just about every known human culture. It posits a set of non-human creatures with above-animal levels of intelligence and with attitudes towards humanity which vary from beneficial to malevolent in the same way that nature appears to humanity – benevolent during seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness but baneful when the raven’s hoarse bellowing gives the game away that something bad is about to happen. In some cultures, the benevolent and malevolent aspects are separated into different creatures while, in others, they are contained Janus-like in the same creatures.
The noir setting has a less precise meaning which generally relates to private eyes treading lonely streets on their own, with hostile or enemy eyes all around and salvation only available through the barrel of a gun. More generally, it can relate to any society or environment in which bad things seem to be predestined for more or less everyone, irrespective of their personal virtue or qualities. In other words, good girls go to hell and bad girls go everywhere before joining them in hell.

Together, then, these two concepts could work. Fae creatures enter an otherwise predominantly human society in which bad things tend to happen to everyone. It is possible to argue that the Sergei Lukyanenko novels, for example, fit this pattern, although RPG players are perhaps more likely to reference the film Sin City and the comics that gave rise to it.
So far so good; in Fae Noir, the suggested setting is the early 1920s. Towards the end of the Great War, the world of the Fae ‘Returned,’ impinging once again upon the world of humanity, through some magical means. Different factions within the Fae world allied themselves with different political sides and that inevitably led to conflict. The Fae showed themselves to be powerful but not invincible. Their presence has become accepted and life continues much as before. New York is presented as the likely centre for game campaigns to take place (although, confusingly, the next example in the text talks about San Francisco, for which there appears to be no description at all). Despite a few nods to the rest of the world, the book focuses almost entirely upon the continental USA, which will suit players from that country perhaps but require some adaptation for those wishing to set the action elsewhere. Other periods are also possible. Some details of life in the early 1920s are provided but there is much material around these days it seems hardly worthwhile just offering a few pages: in itself, it is not enough for a games master (this is the term used here) to organise and regulate a campaign. Indeed, this is a theme that could recur throughout this book, since so many different topics are covered (e.g. faith, magic, vehicular combat, disease) but in insufficient detail to satisfy obstreperous players.

The system itself uses eight attributes, three special attributes, sixty skills, edges and flaws and the usual paraphernalia of character creation. Players get the opportunity to develop their own character concept. It is possible to be a human or one the ten or so species of Fae (including brownies, elves, leprechauns, goblins, kobolds, trolls, ogres and the rest). Presumably for game purposes, the Fae folk are organised on a geographical basis with a macro-societal structure very reminiscent of Zelazny’s Amber books with their opposed courts and which has now become conventional for games set in this kind of genre. Individual courts are hierarchical, often despotic in nature and related to each other according to a feudal structure. Really, you would have thought there would be at least some Fae smart enough to have read Marx and to be organizing their fellows for revolution. Anyway, the character creation is similar to GURPS in nature and panders to players by letting them play what they want – bring back the days of 3d6 per attribute and what you rolled you played. At least there is no attempt to mould the characters into some sort of troupe as occurs in the Vampire-type games. On the other hand, that does entail a fair amount of sitting around in speakeasies waiting for the violent incident that serves to introduce the characters to each other. Well, this is an issue which has rarely if ever been satisfactorily managed outside of very strictly controlled genres like Star Trek where everyone is an officer on the same ship.

After character creation, there are many pages of rules on fighting, mostly with guns and with recording how close to death a character may be. Since this is located in the central part of the book and because so many examples of play revolve around outbreaks of violence (which of course betray the contradictions inherent within the capitalist system), it is logical to assume that this is what the game must be all about. A smart group of well-organised Fae could simply wait, trusting in their own immortality, and wait for society to destroy itself, at which point they could declare a revolution and seize the means of production and the commanding heights of the economy at low cost to themselves. Perhaps a broad-ranging coalition with the urban working-class and peasant farmers in league against the petty criminals and bloodsucking professional classes which seem to infest the game world would also be effective.

Subsequent chapters concern true faith, magic and related phenomena. These are very problematical from several perspectives. First, neither the Fae nor the Noir genres are really suited to this kind of pasted on supernatural element. The Fae are spirits of nature which precede any form of organised superstition, while the Noir element has an inherent existentialist element in which only what the characters themselves physically enact can save them (albeit temporarily) from a nasty fate. Alas, it is now possible for characters to pray to their invisible friends who then come down and squash everybody. It is curious that the author makes a big play that there are no charisma rolls or charisma skills and that role-playing should be used to indicate seduction, persuasion and so forth – yet a few simple dice rolls substitute for bringing down the wrath of heavens on those brave individuals who stick two fingers up against the inherent inequity of a universe that rewards some individuals for possession of blind trust and discriminates against those using their human faculties and the thousands of years of standing on the shoulders of giants that is the scientific method.

Magic is divided into the ‘glamour’ that the Fae possess and the various magical skills and abilities also available to humans. Glamour is illusion. That is always a problem: on one occasion, it is stated that glamour/illusion cannot cause any physical damage, even if it may seem to do so – one another occasion, it is described as tangible (actually it is described as touchable). If it is tangible, then it can cause damage. The rules do not, so far as I can tell, resolve this conundrum satisfactorily. There are so many inventive uses of illusion that can unbalance a game that some serious thought really needs to be given to this section, in my opinion. A similar problem exists with respect to the magic sections, since these lay out in insufficient detail the impact of the various spells, potions and summonings (the magic section is reminiscent of Nephilim in structure) introduced. Inevitably, game play involving these effects will raise questions which the GM will have to answer, possible after entertaining some period of testimony from the players involved. That is one problem of introducing a new rules system, even one which is very similar to a number of others with its rolls for success and opposed dice checks and the like. The genius of the D20 system lies not in the quality or coherence of its rules-writing so much as its comprehensiveness and, even if I have never read the rules properly myself, I can have confidence that somebody has and can make a ruling based on the rules rather than the dice-rolling, whim or personal spite that is usually involved.

Anyway, in terms of physical production, the writing is generally OK and follows the conceit that the narrator is a Fae and speaks in a kind of world-weary, knowing tone. The artwork is mostly unobtrusive, which is good and consists of what I, no connoisseur of art, would call line drawings. They did not distract me from the text, which I consider a good thing. The front cover has the only piece of full colour art and it depicts, almost entirely in a narrow range of green tones, a young woman in some kind of green ball gown lying upside down on some green sheets next to a gigantic glass of green liquid (absinthe?) and threatened by an enormously phallic gun pointed at her in a distinctly non gender-sensitive manner. Curiously, the piece seems to have been signed in 2006 while the book was published in 2005.

I would be interested to hear reports of games played using this system and the style of play adopted. It has potential.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University, May 2008

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