Tech Noir is a genre that mixes the tropes, themes, and archetypical characters and stories of noir and hard boiled fiction with science-fiction technology and aesthetics. It’s the genre of stories about illegal psychics on the run from a government that wants to put them in internment camps and the one ex-psy-cop who can help them escape; or a missing microchip that can hack any computer and the detective hired by corrupt cops to find it since it’s believed to be somewhere in Neon Town; or the billionaire inheritor of a megacorporation who wants to know why her parents were killed in an aircar accident, and doesn’t know who to trust so she turns to outsiders to solve the crime.
The Starfinder Roleplaying Game isn’t specifically designed to emulate Tech Noir, but if everyone in a group is willing to give the tropes a try, there’s only a few things that need to be adjusted for it to do the job quite well.
Tech Noir isn’t about killing monsters or taking their stuff, though both those things can happen. It’s about investigating, surviving, exploring themes, and earning experience points. The GM ignores wealth per level, and “treasure” may be as little as 5 credits a day plus expenses. Instead, you get to pick gear at every character level, with some gear getting special rules on how its recovered or recharged.
“Gear,” in this context, is anything that would go in the equipment chapter of the Starfinder Core Ruleook, so cybernetics and such count. You can even take “services” as gear, in which case they count as contacts (and treat “item level” as the npc contact level), but you have to go to them for help (no more often than once per game session)—they aren’t cohorts.
This equipment has a minimum item level of 1, but even at first level it’s important to know which gear fills which slot (since recharge/reuse rules are different).
Armor has no environmental protections, and always looks like typical clothing. Mostly suits and trenchcoats.
*You get one piece of gear of your level+1 or less. If it uses charges or batteries you never run out of supplies for it, though you do need to take time to reload normally, and you can’t use those supplies for any other equipment. If you lose this, it is restored or replaced within 24 hours or as soon as you get back to your base of operations.
*You also get one pieces of gear of your level or less. If it uses charges or batteries you get one spare every time you hit your home base. If you lose this, it is restored or replaced as soon as you get back to your base of operations (but not more often than once per 2 days.)
*You get two pieces of gear of your level -1 or less. If it uses charges or batteries you get one spare every time you hit your home base, no more than once per game session. If you lose these, they are restored or replaced near the beginning of the next game session.
*You get four pieces of gear of your level -3 or less. If you lose these, you’re out of luck until you gain a new character level.
*If you are 5th level or higher, you get four pieces of gear of your level -4 or less. If you lose these, you’re out of luck until you gain a new character level.
Tech noir adventures are much more likely to be mysteries than jungle exploration, first contact with new alien species, or raids into ancient dungeons—though tech noir CAN tell those stories, with an additional mystery/drama subplot.
In the first or second session of a new tech noir adventure, the GM should make clear why the mystery or complication of the adventure is. After each successful encounter, the GM must give the PCs a lead. No skill check is needed for this (though additional clues may be available with successful skill checks). The lead is, at minimum, a way to get to another encounter related to the mystery or complication, which in turn leads to another, and so on. After 13 successful encounters, the mystery or complication is solved (by shooting the bad guy and finding his diaries explaining everything, if nothing else). Noir detectives and agents often fumble about most of the story, getting jumped by foes they’ve never met and finding allies suddenly getting cagey for no good reason. By tenaciously pulling through, the noir protagonist eventually uncovers the truth. A tech noir adventure should be set up the same way.
Example of Tech Noir in Fiction
Blade Runner 2049
Ghost in the Shell (anime)
Source of Inspiration
Shadowrun—all forms of this RPG are well suited to draw ideas for magic-infused tech noir.
Garrett Files Series. These books by Glen Cook have no tech, but they combine noir with fantasy in a way that should be inspirational for anyone looking to create Starfinder Noir adventures.
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These sites are designed for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, but can be adapted to different sci-fi games as desired.
Each of these sites is popular and powerful enough to exist in the infosphere of hundreds or even thousands of settled worlds. While each planetary infosphere has its own local iteration of these sites, where residents on that planet can interact with it in real time, the offworld sections are regular updated by automatic downloads from the databanks of ships and transmissions from other worlds.
Each site also lists a focus. For every 5 ranks in Computers and Culture a character has (whichever skill they have the most ranks in – you don’t get twice as many foci for having ranks in both), they receive a focus in one infosphere site for free. (A GM may also use inforsphere site focus as benefits for things like themes or story awards.) This represents a strong understanding of how the site works (both technically and in regards to its culture.) Focus with each site gives you a minor bonus when you take specific actions, or allows you to take actions you normally couldn’t. This requires you to have access to the planetary inforsphere, and if the action requires the involvement of people on other planets, its effect is delayed until a ship or transmission carries the request to and from that world (normally double the time requires for a hyperspace trip.)
Blather: A popular venue for extremely short-form messages (known as “blats”), Blather is used both as a way to have public conversations and to push specific marketing ideas. Many Icons and leaders use Blather as a way to send a message directly to their fans, followers, foes, and the general public.
Focus: You can gather information (as the Diplomacy task) with a Computers or Culture check. The first gather information check you make each day takes no time, as it represents your general knowledge gained from being up to date on Blather.
Chekkit: A distributed messageboard with specific-topic sections (subchekkits) on tens of thousands of topics. Chekkit is largely free of corporate control (though it is owned by a coalition of companies) and is self-moderated by members. This freedom allows it to be used as a populist place for discussion, research, and crowdsourcing obscure questions, but also allows it to be used to promote and organize antisocial, bigoted, fringe, and actively harmful social movements.
Focus: You can attempt Diplomacy and Intimidate checks with individuals connected to an infosphere by driving campaigns of popular opinion in the appropriate subchekkits. This takes a minimum of 1d6 days, and you can’t have more than one pending skill check of this type at a time.
Infopedia: Infopedia is a user-driven repository of information, with articles written by, and edited by, the general public. In general this method produces articles with considerable accuracy, and it often allows subjects that do not draw scholarly notice to be thoroughly covered. However, it is also vulnerable to both accidental and intentional falsification of facts.
Focus: You can take 20 on a skill check for a skill you have no ranks in, even for checks that normally require you to be trained in that skill, but doing so takes twice as long as is normally required to take 20. Additionally, with a Computers or Culture check you can attempt to make a Bluff check to introduce a false piece of information to the search results of a planet’s infosphere. The base DC of this Bluff check is the same as the DC to discover the accurate information. Anyone who researches the question with a skill check result below your total to introduce false information cannot determine which fact is real. If they also fail the original research DC by 5 or more, they accept the false fact you introduce as true. Your skill check may be modified by the same kinds of modifiers that make Bluff checks more difficult, and the effective total of your check goes down by 5 per day as the general public corrects the misinformation.
MyFace: The most popular social media infosphere site through the homeworlds and their allies. Users have profiles with extensive personal information, and generally post thoughts, pictures, and even video of everything from their political beliefs to what they had for breakfast. A powerful tool for keeping in touch with friends who are far away, but also a massive tool for corporate opinion-shaping and data-mining and a growing encroachment into the privacy of everyone, as any public event may be broadly broadcast on MyFace.
Focus: You can disguise your online activity by using a false MyFace account as the sign-in and basis of everything you do. Individuals attempting to figure out who you are must make a Computers check with a DC of 10 + your Computers or Culture bonus, or they are fooled into assigning your online activity to a fake MyFace account. You also gain a +2 circumstance bonus on Diplomacy checks with creatures that you have successfully identified the true MyFace accounts of.
Speaking of Sites…
I got so excited I even wrote up a fifth, self-referential, site on my Patreon — the fundraising sci-fi site “Sponseor.”