I've been working on an adventure for a long
time now, meant for low level characters in a city I designed. I
wanted to make an adventure that features both the insight skill, and thieves' cant. I want to explore and explain what thieves' cant actually
I keep retooling this adventure, peeling stuff out and revamping it. I boiled it down to 3 scenes before coming to the realization that this adventure should be like a film noir, but a D&D version of it. "Arcane Noir"? "Prismatic Noir"?
Film Noir: Then I realized that I didn't really know what film noir was! So I started reading, and I found that nobody really knows what it is. Film noir is a fancy name for a crime movie. With shadows. And detectives. And "femme fatales." I guess the closest modern thing to it would be Sin City.
I decided that I should watch some film noir stuff so that I could understand it and maybe find inspiration for my adventure. I looked up a list of the top 20 film noir movies of all time, and decided to watch them.
This is a sort of "report" on what I learned. First we'll look at the perils of trying to run an investigation/crime adventure in D&D. Then we'll examine the noir tropes I pulled out from the movies that you could use in your game. Then we'll actually discuss the movies and what was good/bad about them.
My Favorite Film Noir: Real quick, I just want to say that if you only watch one film noir, it should be Kiss Me Deadly. Don't read anything about it! Just watch it.
Implementing Film Noir in D&D
Noir stories often involve an investigation, which can be difficult to run in Dungeons & Dragons. Players in D&D tend to either "skip to the end," which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that it means you may have wasted hours of prep time. They also have a habit of wandering off from the story entirely.
I had something of a revelation years ago when I ran some classic Shadowrun adventures. Those scenarios are structured differently - they're in scenes. For example, the group starts off in a club. They learn some clues that point to 2-3 different locales. They pick one, and you flip to that locale in the book. That area also has clues/hooks to other areas.
It's a bit like a choose your own adventure book. Eventually the group winds toward the climax, but the path in which they get there is very flexible. It allows the group a lot of freedom - there's a detailed scenario for almost any choice they make. The DM is less likely to have to try to pull a random (entertaining!) scenario out of nowhere.
Here's a quick example.
The heroes stumble on the scene of a murder. Examining the body, the group finds 3 clues:
- The victim has a tattoo made by a prominent tattoo artist.
- The victim is wearing garb that indicates they work at a certain tavern.
- A witness claims the victim's dying words were about a cleric in a nearby church.
So the group has three leads. They can visit the tattoo artist, the tavern, or the church. Those locales have more clues that lead to more people and places. Along the way, the murderer may try to trip up/rub out the adventurers.
Shadows and Dim Light
Noir plays around a lot with shadows and silhouettes. We should probably be familiar with the rules on light so that we can get the most out of a shadow-y alley.
Dim Light: "The soft light of twilight...." This area is lightly obscured, meaning that creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks.
Darkness: These areas are heavily obscured, meaning that a creature is effectively blinded (auto-fail ability checks involving sight, attack rolls have disadvantage, creatures have advantage to hit you).
Darkvision: In my experience, most characters have darkvision. Remember that "...a creature with darkvision can see in dim light as if it were bright light and in darkness as if it were dim light...".
Also, creatures with darkvision can't discern color in darkness, only shades of gray. I think describing those scenes as without color can definitely enhance the noir feel.
Hiding: When you take the Hide action, you make a Dexterity (Stealth) check in an attempt to hide. "When a creature can't see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it. If you are hidden — both unseen and unheard — when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses."
It's film noir. There will be lots of villains hiding in the shadows trying to stab you in the back.
Divination Spells in an Investigation
Here's the big problem with mysteries in D&D: Divination spells. You have to account for them! If possible, not only should you set it up so that a certain spell doesn't 'ruin' your scenario, but you should set it up that divination spells are almost necessary to move the plot along.
Let's go through some prominent "common" divination spells to see how they could detract or enhance an investigation scenario. We'll focus on spell levels 1-4, as I think that spellcasters that can cast level 5+ spells are probably exceedingly rare in most settlements.
Comprehend Languages: Understand any spoken language you hear. Understand written language you see - but you must be touching the surface on which the words are written. That might be a really cool setup. Maybe something is written high up in a city, or it is written in a holy book that all are forbidden to touch.
Note: "The spell doesn't decode secret messages in a text or glyph..."
Detect Evil and Good: Make sure you read this spell's description. It's false advertising! It doesn't tell you the alignment of a creature. It tells you their type: Aberration, celestial, elemental, fey, fiend, or undead. This actually could be used for a great twist - the group suddenly realizes the person they are talking to is actually a fiend, perhaps a shapeshifted succubus.
Detect Poison and Disease: You can sense poison, poisonous creatures (!), and diseases. This might make for an interesting twist. The group suspects that their food is poisoned, but upon casting the spell, they find that the food is fine.. however, the person with them is sick.
Speak with Animals: I love the idea that a witness to a crime is a stray cat. The heroes can interrogate the cat with this spell, and you can do a goofy cat voice.
Augury: This spell only gives the group very vague aid. Their questions about specific courses of action give an answer of "weal" for good results and "woe" for bad results.
The most interesting thing about this spell to me is the drama in the set-up - you have to "roll dragon bones" and wield "gem inlaid sticks."
Detect Thoughts: This one is big. You can learn surface thoughts of a creature, and you can probe deeper into their mind if they fail a Wisdom save. You have to take this spell into account! If the group is interrogating three suspects, they can use this to find the murderer.
On the positive side, this spell can be used to quickly narrow things down. The heroes can enter a bar and scan the surface thoughts of people in there, perhaps quickly identifying the individual who has useful information for them.
Locate Object: Another potential 'mystery solver.' Let's say that everyone is looking for a certain box. Cast locate object - if it's within 1,000 feet, you find it.
Remember this note in the spell description: "This spell can't locate an object if any thickness of lead, even a thin sheet, blocks a direct path between you and the object."
It makes sense that, in a D&D world, that objects of value would be hidden in lead boxes. Although that actually brings a fun wrinkle - could crooks cast locate object to detect lead boxes? This could lead to all sorts of fun shenanigans.
Clairvoyance: You create an invisible sensor that you can see through. This is a great spell for a stake out. The only problem is that it only lasts for up to 10 minutes. But, if the group knows that a meeting between shady individuals is set to go down at midnight, they can set the sensor up and spy on the bad guys, learning all sorts of clues and details.
Arcane Eye: Basically, this is a more powerful version of clairvoyance. It lasts an hour and the eye can be moved around.
Divination: Another very dramatic spell! You ask a god a single question, and you receive a cryptic answer. A booming voice? A whisper? Thunder rumbles? A holy symbol on the wall glows brightly?
Locate Creature: Another potential 'game breaker.' You can locate a creature within 1,000 feet. "This spell can't locate a creature if running water at least 10 feet wide blocks a direct path between you and the creature." So that means that any kidnapping ring would likely set up near a river.
There is also a note that says that if the victim is polymorphed, the spell doesn't locate them. That said, if the bad guys have a habit of polymorphing their victims into rabbits, and the heroes use this spell to locate creatures of a specific kind (rabbits), then they could crack the case... or blindly stumble onto the lair. "Why are all these rabbits here? And why are they in these cages? And what's the deal with this pile of clothes?"
Poison is a good way for a noir villain to get their job done efficiently. The thing about poison is... it's expensive. The average working person makes about 2 gold per day in D&D. The cheapest poison costs 150 gold!
Let's look at the cheapest poisons.
(150 gp) Assassin's Blood: Ingested. It just does 6 poison damage, half on a save. But a commoner only has 4 hit points. So if they fail their save, they die.
(150 gp) Truth Serum: Ingested. If you fail your save, you can't knowingly speak a lie for one hour, as if under a zone of truth spell.
This is another potential plot-hacking item, although it often gets overlooked. It makes sense that the guards in a settlement would use truth serum in an investigation.
(200 gp) Carrion Crawler Mucus: Contact. Fail your save? You are poisoned and paralyzed! But not for long. You repeat the save each round and once you make it, the effect ends.
(200 gp) Drow Poison: Injury. This is one of those "if you fail your save by a lot, it's bad" poisons. Fail your save: poisoned for 1 hour. Fail by 5+: You're unconscious for one hour!
(200 gp) Serpent Venom: Injury. This one is the commoner killer. It does 10 damage on a failed save, 5 damage on a successful save. The 4 HP commoner is dead no matter what.
Film Noir Plots
Here are the storylines that I was able to pull out of the various movies I watched.
Mystery Box: Mysterious enemies are trying to find a box containing a secret treasure. Possibly a soul, or a devastating living spell.
Treasure Hunters: Eccentric NPCs are all trying to find an object of great value, sabotaging each other and anyone else who gets in their way.
Spousal Murder: A spouse in a tight situation recruits the heroes to murder their partner. This one is all about planning the murder, and whether or not what they were told is even true.
Wayward Children: A father who is in poor health has two attractive adult children that have gotten mixed up with villains. The heroes must extract the kids from the situation without bringing attention to the wealthy father.
Missing Spouse: A spouse has fled their marriage, as their partner is a possessive criminal. The heroes are hired to go and find the spouse.
Murdered Acquaintance: The group meets someone and spends an evening with them. This person is murdered just after bidding the group farewell. The heroes are the only suspects - they must solve the crime to prove their innocence.
Non-Murder Murder: A person is murdered in their own home. People investigate.. then it turns out that the person who was murdered was actually on vacation. Who the dead person in their home actually is, is a mystery.
Secret Stash: A villain really wants a certain clock - because there is an item of value (a murder weapon) stashed within it.
Wrong Place: The group ends up traveling with a man who suddenly dies. It turns out that the man is a rich, influential criminal whose death can bring the group great wealth, so obviously they are murder suspects.
Film Noir NPCs
These are some of the more interesting film noir NPCs I stumbled across.
Unrequited Love: A sidekick who does anything for their boss, and the boss uses them without care.
Pathological Liar: An opportunist who will double cross anyone to achieve their goal, going so far as to impersonate a dead person if they can get away with it.
Evil Blackmailer: An antagonist who blackmails a character, sticking by their side, siphoning every last gold piece they can.
Mysterious Love: A character's ex-partner who mysteriously disappeared suddenly returns, now with a new partner who is seemingly a force for great good.
Black Widow: An amoral villain who marries people and then tricks other people that they seduce into killing the spouse, all for slight financial gain.
Devoted Servant: A butler/maid of a wealthy eccentric, who is in reality a former spouse who still sticks around out of concern for their ex's health and sanity.
Shady Lawyer: A lawyer who seems to be legitimate, but secretly has money problems and is willing to finance a heist.
One Day From Retirement: A hired goon who just wants one big score so they can go home and rebuild their life.
The Geek: A person who works at a carnival, biting the heads off of chickens, acting crazy. How did they end up here?
Guard on the Take: A crooked cop more than willing to go in on a heist. A burly chess player who is up for committing a small crime to distract from a bigger crime taking place.
Film Noir Reviews
Now let's look at actual movies and see what they are like. I watched most of these movies in chronological order by release date, so that I could get a feel for how film noir evolved over time.
I started with a movie that is apparently not a film noir, just to set the tone for myself.
This is a very famous film, but I'd never seen it before. In fact, I'd never seen a Humphrey Bogart movie before.
It's a simple story about a guy who runs into his ex-girlfriend, who is now with somebody else. She left him under mysterious circumstances, and he wants to know why.
Why is this Famous? Once the movie was over, I wondered why the heck it was so popular. I think I figured it out. This movie is about a guy who is quite immature. For most of the movie, he mopes around feeling sorry for himself. He is downright pathetic pining away for her, and when he steals her back (the new boyfriend is a concentration camp survivor, for the love of god), it feels really low.
So then, you are proud of him when he realizes that
she should be with the other guy. He makes a mature, adult decision, and it comes as a genuine surprise.
Holocaust Awareness: I'm not sure where I learned this, but I was under the impression that most people in the 40's were unaware of the holocaust and the nazi concentration camps. I specifically remember seeing some documentary where a holocaust survivor explains that people didn't believe it or want to hear about it.
But in this movie, which was made during World War II, they talk about concentration camps. The new boyfriend is a concentration camp survivor. Heck, he's actually risking being sent back to a camp by the nazis! So I guess people did know.
The Maltese Falcon, 1941
Now let's get into some film noir. In this story, a trio of unique NPCs are all looking for a treasure - the Maltese Falcon. Detective Sam Spade ends up in the middle of it when one of the NPCs tries to manipulate him into finding it for her.
In the end, the maltese falcon that they do find turns out to be a fake. The NPCs sigh and decide to go back from where they came to try to pick up the trail. The whole thing is very fun, and Kasper Gutman is a delightful NPC.
Double Indemnity, 1944
This was ranked as the top film noir. I don't think it's the best, but it is good, a very "clean" movie - a well told story.
It's hard to use much of this for D&D, because it involves an insurance scam. A femme fatale seduces an insurance agent, and uses him to figure out how to maximize the profits from her soon-to-be-murdered husband's life insurance.
The femme fatale in this one is legendary. She's so sly, so evil, that she's very hard to forget.
It does amuse me how obsessed the main character is with her sexy ankle bracelet. He had no chance against, her. None at all.
The Big Sleep, 1944
Another Humphrey Bogart film. This one didn't really do much for me. It's about a rich man who has two daughters who've gotten mixed up with some bad guys. It's very convoluted. The dad is a fantastically sympathetic NPC.
The one thing that sticks out to me in this movie is Lauren Bacall. I have never, ever seen anyone with a more intense stare. I feel like she could kill somebody just by looking at them.
The twist in this one is great. A body is found in Laura's apartment. Must be Laura right? Halfway through the movie, Laura shows up at her home - she's been on vacation. So who is the dead girl in her apartment? Was someone trying to kill Laura but killed the other woman accidentally?
I really like the main character, and I am fascinated with the idea of the cop falling in love with the dead woman. It does feel a little cheap/convenient that she turns out to be alive.
This is a really well done movie. Laura herself is really special. Gene Tierney was beyond perfect in the role.
Also, how weird is it to see Vincent Price without his little mustache?
There is one reason to see this movie: Ann Savage. Her character is the most intense and evil woman ever to exist on the screen. She clamps down on this poor sap and forces him to do all sorts of awful stuff. It's unreal how tough and vicious she is.
Out of the Past, 1947
This is the first Robert Mitchum movie I have ever seen. Now that I have, so many old references and caricatures suddenly make sense. He's a sleepy-eyed fellow, very cool and calm.
This story jumps all over the place. It's about a woman trying to get away from her jealous criminal husband. At least, that's how it appears.
She turns out to be a bad guy, too. Very twisty story, was pretty good.
Nightmare Alley, 1947
Tyrone plays a carny who wants to hit it big. He's not a good dude, and he uses people to put himself in the position to become a star of sorts.
He literally does that sleazy gimmick where he pretends he can talk to the dead relatives of grieving wealthy people. The movie even spells out the process of "cold reading." People knew it was a scam in the 40's! How is it still something that con artists get away with today?!
Eventually, he encounters a woman who is even lower than he is - a therapist who records all of her rich clients conversations, and uses the information for criminal means. She screws Tyrone out of a vast sum of money, and he ends up back at the carnival where he started - this time as "the geek," the guy who bites the head off of chickens.
Well... he was going to be the geek, until the movie cops out of it.
Sunset Boulevard, 1950
What a great movie. There's nothing like it. I'm not sure how much of it translates to D&D, though.
This is about Norma Desmond, a delusional former movie star who is not well mentally. I was shocked to see the movie tackle the concept of suicidal ideation. Again, not something I'd put in a D&D adventure.
Norma takes in the main character, a struggling screen writer, who becomes her "pet", more or less. The main character ends up falling in love with someone else, and the whole story unravels.
Money Problems: One thing that I really liked was the fact that, in the beginning, the main character has severe money problems. He is literally hiding from people who want to re-possess his car. It is very relevant to life right now, and I'd like to see more movies and stories that portray what it is like to be in debt or poor.
I feel like we live in a society where so many people are secretly ashamed that they're barely getting by or unable to save any money, and I'd like to see it discussed out in the open more often.
The butler character is really great. He was married to Norma! He's still here at her side because he wants to keep her from killing herself. It's a very unique story.
The Asphalt Jungle, 1950
The Asphalt Jungle is a movie about a crime, from beginning to end. The planning, the execution, the aftermath.
The main character is a goon played by Sterling Hayden. At first, I found him to be ridiculous. He's way too nice for the role, and I didn't buy his tough guy act. But as the movie rolls on, I ended up rooting for him.
The architect of the heist is this old german fellow who just got out of prison. He's very sympathetic and I definitely felt sad for him by the end.
Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe is in this movie, just for a few quick scenes. Honestly, she's not good in this at all. But I can't help but notice that in all the film noir movies after this one, you can see a change in the women. They all look and talk like Marilyn Monroe.
I was also struck by the woman who is really into Sterling, but he's not into her. I feel like we don't see that in movies very often. She was such a sad character - a great NPC for a D&D campaign. It's one thing to deal with a lawful evil villain. But what do you do about the nice person who is in love with them?
In a Lonely Place, 1951
Another Bogart flick, this one is about a screen writer who ends up as the prime suspect in the murder of a woman he'd just met. There's something about Bogart's characters - full of self pity, very whiny. I don't really understand why this guy was such a star.
This film is OK. It's a mystery with an ironic ending.
The Killing, 1956
I wasn't aware that Stanley Kubrick made movies this long ago! The soundtrack nearly ruined this one for me, with all the horns and marching, but there's some fun stuff in here. It's basically the Asphalt Jungle again, but this time they're robbing a race track.
Even better, Sterling Hayden's in this one! He looks so much older, and he's a much better actor.
There's a scene or two where he leaves the sack of money somewhere vulnerable, and it makes my skin crawl. You can probably guess the ending of this movie as it rolls along.
Asphalt Jungle and The Killing are a "crime doesn't pay" one-two punch. I'd definitely like to see more "heist" style adventures in D&D.
Kiss Me Deadly, 1955
OK. I have a lot to say about this one. If there is one movie you watch on this list, it should be Kiss Me Deadly. I hate to spoil this film for you, but I'm going to have to. If you have any interest in this at all, please stop reading and go watch it.
In Kiss Me Deadly, a scummy private investigator gets in the middle of a case where everyone is looking for a mysterious box. Almost nobody knows what is in the box, they just know that it has great value.
Film Noir Roast: I get the feeling that the people who made this movie did so to satirize or ridicule the genre, or at least to mock the source material (a novel by Mickey Spillane).
The main character, Mike Hammer, is a piece of garbage. The movie actually starts with him encountering a damsel in distress - and he's mad about it! He's pissed off that she's wasting his time.
Mike Hammer is dumb. He uses people. He genuinely enjoys hurting others. He doesn't come close to solving the mystery. He treats the woman who loves him like trash. He pimps her out! Uses her to entrap guys into cheating on their wives.
Women throw themselves at him in a manner so unrealistic that it has to be a joke. The filmmakers appear to be roasting the whole idea of the "alpha male."
The Investigation: The movie rolls along, and the plot is sort of impossible to follow. Names and NPCs are flying left and right, and as things progress we're not really sure why the person Mike is talking to is relevant.
We watch as Mike get nastier and nastier. He slaps the taste out of an old man's mouth. He crushes the fingers of another old man. He destroys valuable property of a third old man!
Having watched a bunch of these noir movies at this point, I figured that this story would play out like the Maltese Falcon. Everyone must be looking for jewels, or money. Something typical and crime-y.
The Box: But then Mike Hammer finds the box. He opens it just a little bit, and a bright light shoots out of it, burning his arm.
I had to stop and watch the scene a few times. What was that? What is going on in this movie?
It reminded me of Pulp Fiction, and the mysterious glowing briefcase. I assume that this is where Tarantino got that idea from.
In Pulp Fiction, people say that the briefcase contains the soul of crime boss Marcellus Wallace. Weird, but OK, whatever. That story idea actually works in D&D - it works in a big way.
But this movie isn't that nice. We're not saving somebody's soul in Kiss Me Deadly. You know what's in the mysterious box? Nuclear material!
The Meanest Movie Ever: At the end of this film, a woman fully opens the box and she is burned alive in a scene that must have been very shocking for the time. She screams on and on as the house she's in burns to the ground, to the utter surprise of Mike Hammer, who of course is totally clueless about what is going on.
That is how the movie ends - a woman is engulfed in flames and dies, screaming.
Kiss Me Deadly is one of the meanest movies I have ever seen. It is a movie that hates itself.
I ended up watching it again, and I actually got a lot more out of it the second time. This really is a great movie. Sure, it's unpleasant, but there's just so much to it and the shocking twist comes out of absolutely nowhere.
On the second viewing, you see clues you missed the first time. It all adds up. Who are the bad guys chasing the box? Communists! We were in a Cold War, after all.
Nothing Mike Hammer does really matters, because the world is going to destroy itself out of sheer stupidity. Absolutely crazy.
Thanks for reading!