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Betrayal in the Back Alleys: 10 Criminal Encounters for a Noir D&D Game

Updated: Jan 18

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Introduction: Betrayal in the Back Alleys: 10 Criminal Encounters for a Noir D&D Game

You've decided to take your D&D campaign into the gritty back alleys and smoky dens of a sprawling fantasy metropolis. Urban adventures provide ample opportunities for mystery, danger, and betrayal at every shadowy corner. As your players navigate the labyrinthine streets, have encounters ready to pull them into the city's criminal underbelly.

Whether they stumble upon a shady deal going down in a darkened dead-end or get caught in the crossfire of rival gangs, these encounters will immerse them in a world of noir where gold and glory come at the highest price.

The Set-Up: An Offer Too Good to Refuse

The shady informant approaches you in the alley, offering a "business opportunity" too lucrative to pass up. Do you take the bait?

This encounter sets the stage for intrigue and double-crossing. Have the informant offer the party a chance to intercept a valuable shipment of goods, gold, or other treasure. The pay-out seems almost too good to be true.

  • Describe the informant as mysterious and untrustworthy, dropping hints about their shadowy connections and dangerous acquaintances. Build a sense of mystery and foreboding.

  • The location for the job is in a sinister, run-down part of the city filled with thieves and cutthroats. The party must proceed with caution.

  • Despite the risks, the reward proves irresistible. But after completing the "simple" job, the party finds they have been deceived. The goods are worthless, the gold is fake, the treasure a trap. They were set up to take the fall.

  • Now the party must find a way out of this treacherous situation. Do they track down the double-crossing informant for revenge and their rightful payment? Or do they cut their losses and learn a hard lesson about trust in the underworld?

This encounter sets a mood of moral ambiguity and subterfuge. The party must navigate a seedy criminal underworld where nothing is as it seems. They start off greedy and end up the target of deception, learning the hard way that there is no honor among thieves.

The Patrons: Meet the Local Crime Boss

To set the mood for your noir-inspired campaign, you'll want to introduce some shady underworld characters, like a local crime boss. This sinister figure runs the criminal underground in your city, controlling rackets, scams, and other illegal activities from the shadows.

  • Describe the crime boss as a mysterious figure who is rarely seen in public. Have their identity and appearance remain unknown to most. Only their most trusted lieutenants ever meet with them in person.

  • Give the crime boss control over several criminal rackets in the city like gambling dens, protection rackets, smuggling rings, or drug cartels. Explain how they take a cut of the profits from these illegal businesses in exchange for providing muscle and connections.

  • Have the crime boss hire the party for a "job" that seems simple at first but turns out to be more than it appears. For example, a heist to steal valuable documents that implicate corrupt city officials, or a hit on a rival gang leader. Betrayal and double-crosses should be expected!

  • Detail how the crime boss deals harshly with anyone who fails or betrays them. Describe examples of the grisly fates that have befallen those who crossed them in the past to demonstrate why they are so feared.

  • Explain that while the crime boss operates outside the law, they see themselves as a stabilizing force controlling crime in the city. They follow their own strict code of honor and expect the same from those in their employ. Cross them at your own peril!

With a sinister crime boss pulling the strings, your players will never know who they can trust or what dangers lurk around every corner in the back alleys of your noir city. Their moral compasses will be tested as they navigate the tangled web of lies and betrayals in the underworld.

The Chase: Danger Lurks Around Every Corner

The Chase Begins

As your players traverse the dimly-lit alleys, a scream pierces the night. In the distance, shadowy figures can be seen chasing a mysterious person. Do your players rush to help, or do they avoid getting involved in such a dangerous situation?

If they choose to help, have them roll initiative as a group of thugs rounds the corner, weapons drawn and looking for blood. Their target, a halfling in a trench coat, pleads for help. The thugs - hired goons of a local crime boss - demand the halfling hand over “the goods.” If the players intervene, the thugs attack them as well. If the halfling survives, they reward the players for their heroism.

If they avoid conflict, describe the sounds of a scuffle in the distance that eventually goes silent. The next day, rumours spread of a halfling found dead in the alley, stabbed multiple times. The local thieves’ guild tightens its grip on the neighbourhood, threatening anyone who asks too many questions. Your players must decide whether to investigate further or leave the sleeping dogs lie.

  • Have the thugs wield clubs, daggers or other simple weapons.

  • Give the halfling a clue or item that leads to a bigger mystery.

  • Describe the sounds of the fight to build suspense - shouts, crashes, etc.

  • Mention blood stains, scattered papers or other details in the aftermath.

  • Have witnesses provide vague, conflicting accounts of what happened.

  • Use this encounter to show how ruthless the local crime syndicate can be.

This chase sequence adds action and intrigue to your noir-inspired campaign. Your players must think on their feet and face the consequences of their decisions. Will they take a stand against the spreading influence of organized crime, or become complicit in its insidious dealings? The choice is theirs.

Check out out other posts on encounters, from back alley deals to haunted forest quests

The Mole: There's a Rat in the Gang

The Mole: There's a Rat in the Gang

As the party establishes themselves in the criminal underworld, they'll start to gain notoriety and the trust of various gangs and syndicates. However, not everyone can be trusted. There may be a mole in their midst, feeding information to rival groups or the city watch.

To uncover the mole, the party will have to keep their plans close to their chest and watch for any signs of betrayal or suspicious behaviour among their associates. Some clues to look out for include:

  • Information about jobs or activities leaked to rivals before the party has a chance to act.

  • Whispers in the tavern or on the street about the party’s movements or hideouts that only close confidants should know about.

  • Associates making excuses to be absent at key moments or acting jittery and evasive.

  • The sudden disappearance of a confidant right before a big job.

Once the party identifies their prime suspects, they'll need to set a trap to confirm who cannot be trusted. This could involve:

  1. Feeding different information to each suspect to see which version gets back to their rivals.

  2. Staging a fake job or stash of loot to see if anyone betrays them to steal it.

  3. Following the suspects to see if they meet with known enemies or snitches of the city watch.

If a mole is caught, the party will have to decide whether to make an example of the traitor to solidify their reputation, or show mercy to maintain loyalty among their remaining associates. Either way, they'll need to be more cautious about who they trust with their criminal conspiracies going forward.

With betrayal and suspicion around every corner, no one is safe in the cutthroat world of organized crime. The party will need to watch each other's backs if they want to survive and thrive in these back alley battlegrounds. Constant vigilance and loyalty are key.

The Deal Gone Wrong: When Gold Turns to Lead

The Deal Gone Wrong: When Gold Turns to Lead

As an adventurer in the city, you’re no stranger to shady deals and double-crosses. But when a seemingly straightforward exchange of gold for an enchanted item goes awry, you find yourself in a dangerous situation with no easy way out.

  • You’ve been hired by a mysterious figure to acquire an enchanted dagger from a black market dealer. In exchange for a hefty sum of gold, the dealer agrees to the trade.

  • However, upon inspecting the dagger, you realize it’s a fake. The gold has already been handed over, and now the dealer and his thugs have you surrounded. They never intended to give up the real dagger.

  • You’re outnumbered and unarmed, as you came in good faith for a simple deal. But now that the gold has turned to lead in your hands, the dealer means to ensure your silence - permanently.

  • Do you talk your way out of this treacherous deal gone wrong? Attempt to fight your way to freedom against the odds? Or will you end up another victim in the back alleys, betrayed by greed and trusting in the wrong people?

The possibilities for this encounter are numerous. Your players could:

  • Bluff or intimidate the dealer into returning the gold and letting them go.

  • Create a distraction, then attempt to flee the area.

  • Get into a brawl with the thugs, hoping to overpower them through skill and luck.

  • Attempt to bribe or bargain with the dealer for their lives.

  • End up captured or killed, showing that in the grim streets of the city, there are no guarantees of success or survival.

This encounter provides opportunities for social interaction, combat, and dealing with the consequences of a plan gone awry. The moral is that in the back alleys, trust is in short supply - and betrayal lurks around every corner. Tread carefully!

The Frame Job: It Wasn't Me, I Swear!

The Set-Up

The party is approached by a shifty-looking NPC who claims to have a "business proposition" for them. However, this is just a front to lure the party into a trap. The NPC leads the party into a back alley where they are ambushed by thugs who attack them. The goal of the ambush is not to kill the party but to rough them up and plant stolen goods on them.

Framed for the Crime

After the fight, the city watch arrives, tipped off ahead of time by the NPC. They find the party amidst the aftermath of the battle, with the stolen goods now in their possession. The guards arrest the party for theft. Despite their protests of innocence, all the evidence points to them. They are thrown into the city jail to await trial.

A Rat in the Ranks

Through investigation, the party can discover that the NPC who lured them into the ambush is working with the criminal gangs in the city. The gangs have contacts in the city watch who helped set up the frame job. By exposing the corruption in the watch and proving their innocence, the party can turn the tables on their enemies. Options include:

  • Bribing a guard to deliver a message to an ally who can investigate the NPC and watch members involved.

  • Staging a jailbreak to find evidence of their innocence.

  • Bluffing a confession from the NPC who framed them by convincing him his allies turned on him.

  • Using a divination spell to gain information about the night of the ambush and the NPC's location.

Justice is Served

After exposing the conspiracy against them, the party can clear their names and see their enemies face justice. The corrupt city watch members will be removed from their posts. The NPC and gang members involved in framing the party can face punishment ranging from imprisonment to execution, depending on the laws of the city. The party also gains fame as heroes who uncovered corruption within the city.

The Loose Ends: Tying Up Loose Threads, Permanently

Loose Ends That Need Tying

As your noir-inspired campaign progresses, various NPCs, clues, and story threads will emerge that could come back to haunt the party if left unresolved. Tying up these loose ends in a permanent fashion may be necessary to avoid complications down the road.

  • The double-crossing informant. The snitch who betrayed the party’s trust with false information or led them into an ambush may seek revenge...or offer another dubious “hot tip” to lure them into more danger. It may be prudent to ensure their silence - permanently.

  • The vengeful relative. If the party roughed up or eliminated an NPC, did they also account for that character’s allies or family members who may come seeking vengeance? The brother of a slain thug or the spouse of an interrogated conspirator could prove problematic if left to plot their revenge.

  • The overlooked clue. In the heat of their investigations, the party may have missed a key piece of evidence or didn’t fully explore a lead. But their enemies are still searching, and finding that overlooked clue could give the villains an advantage...unless the party circles back to tie up that loose end.

  • The escaped fugitive. Whether a cunning crime boss, a devious demon, or a sinister serial killer, a formidable foe who escapes the party’s grasp will live to torment them another day. Hunting down and eliminating such a threat is the only way to truly tie up that dangerous loose end.

To summarize, identifying and resolving loose ends, whether through bribery, blackmail, intimidation, or good old-fashioned violence, is a necessary evil to survive the mean streets of a noir-inspired D&D campaign. The party should revisit unresolved clues, deal with vengeful NPCs, and eliminate escaped threats permanently to avoid nasty surprises down the road. Tying up loose ends may not always be pretty, but it will allow the party to stay one step ahead in a world of betrayal and danger.

The Double Cross: There's Always a Bigger Fish

The Set Up

Your party has been hired for a job by a local crime boss to steal an ancient artefact from a rival gang's heavily guarded warehouse. The pay is good, so they take the job. After pulling off the heist without a hitch, they go to collect their reward from the boss.

The Betrayal

However, upon arriving for payment, the boss double crosses the party. “I don't have any use for you anymore. Boys, take care of them!” The boss's thugs attack the party, attempting to kill them and take the artefact. The boss wants the power and value of the artefact for themselves without having to pay for it.

Fighting Back

Your party has to defend themselves from the thugs while also protecting the artifact from being stolen back. They are outnumbered, so they have to fight smart. Some options include:

  • Using the environment to their advantage, like pushing over shelves or knocking out lights for cover.

  • Focusing attacks on the boss to take them out of the fight early. Without leadership, the thugs may flee or turn on each other.

  • Using hit-and-run tactics to avoid being surrounded, then escaping with the artifact as quickly as possible.

The Aftermath

If your party survives and keeps the artifact, they now have a dangerous enemy in the crime boss. The boss may send more goons to get revenge and reclaim their prize. Your party should lay low to avoid retaliation, or strike first to eliminate the threat. They could also use the artifact as leverage to negotiate a truce.

Betrayal is common in the criminal underworld, where there is no honor among thieves. Your party learned this lesson the hard way, but at least they lived to tell the tale! They'll be more cautious about who they make deals with in the future. There's always a bigger fish waiting to double cross you for their own gain.

The Noir Ending: Betrayal, Loss and Defeat

The Noir Ending: Betrayal, Loss and Defeat

As your campaign reaches its climax, consider an ending that evokes the bleak tone of noir fiction. The PCs have struggled against the evil lurking in the city's shadows, but find themselves outmatched and outmanoeuvred.

Betrayal from Within

An ally or contact betrays the PCs at a critical moment, sabotaging their plans or ambushing them when they're vulnerable. This underscores the grim message that no one can be trusted in the city's harsh underworld.

  • The PCs' main informant sells them out to the villain in exchange for money or to save their own skin.

  • A PC's romantic interest leads them into a trap, revealing they were working for the enemy all along.

Loss and Sacrifice

The PCs face a difficult choice between saving something they care about in the city or stopping the villain for good. Either option results in loss and sacrifice.

  1. The villain takes a location or NPC the PCs care about hostage, forcing them to choose between saving the hostage or foiling the villain's plot.

  2. Stopping the villain requires a heroic sacrifice from an NPC ally or even a PC themselves. Their death underscores the costs of fighting evil.

Good Doesn't Always Triumph

In the bleakest noir stories, evil sometimes wins. The PCs fail to stop the villain, who achieves their sinister goal and plunges the city into darkness.

  • The villain outsmarts the PCs at every turn, eventually defeating them in a final confrontation. Their sinister plot succeeds, and the city descends into corruption or chaos.

  • The PCs make a desperate last stand but are overwhelmed by the villain's thugs. They go down fighting but are defeated, and evil reigns.

This type of ending reinforces the tone you want to set for your noir-inspired D&D game. Victory comes at a cost, and sometimes the good guys don't win. Your players will remember the campaign for its tone of darkness and moral ambiguity.


As you venture into the shadowy back alleys and secret dealings of the city, keep your wits about you. Danger lurks around every corner in the form of sinister gangsters, corrupt officials, and those who would betray you for a handful of gold coins. But don't lose hope - there are still good folk trying to make an honest living and willing to help those in need. Play your cards right, trust the right people, and you just might make it out of this urban jungle alive with loot and stories to tell. The city at night is filled with peril and possibility, so take a deep breath of the cool night air, straighten your hat, and plunge into the darkness. Adventure awaits!

Mean Streets: Creating your own urban noir adventure in D&D

In the thrilling world of D&D, the echoes of your characters' boots on rain-slick cobblestones are a welcome departure from the standard dungeon crawl. Welcome to the mean streets, where social encounters often prove as dangerous as combat encounters, and where political intrigue provides a higher stakes game than any demon lord from the Monster Manual. This is your introduction to creating an urban noir adventure in the realm of D&D.

The urban noir setting, a labyrinth of alleys and hidden secrets, is ripe with adventure hooks. Here, party members can sink into the underbelly of the campaign setting, taking on roles they may not typically encounter in a high-level adventure. A murder mystery might require them to put their battle axes aside and employ social interaction skills, calling upon their charisma for an influence check rather than their strength for a hit. Suddenly, a high school dropout rogue with a silver tongue becomes as important as a 20th level wizard.

Your main villain might not be a towering beast from the Tomb of Horrors, but a corrupt city official or a cunning crime lord. The bad guys are human beings, individuals wielding power and influence rather than magic items. Their motives may be veiled in layers of intrigue, leaving the players guessing and second-guessing their every move. From the dungeon master's perspective, this presents an excellent opportunity to flex your creative muscles and weave a web of suspenseful social scenarios.

As an adventure module, the city becomes a character in itself, a living entity that reacts to the party's decisions. This campaign module should also have its own unique challenges. It's a world where anonymous proxy wars play out in the backrooms of taverns, and where the right place at the right time could lead to an unexpected encounter or clue. Innocent people may be caught up in the machinations of the city's major players, providing moral dilemmas that carry real-world weight and negative consequences for poor choices.

In an urban noir adventure, your party's home base becomes more than just a place to rest. It's a sanctuary in a city that might feel like it's closing in on them, a peaceful solution in a sea of turmoil. It's a place where the influences of popular shows like Critical Role can be felt, where the social conflict matters just as much as the inevitable clash with enemy forces. It can be the perfect opportunity to deepen player characters’ backstory or to intertwine their personal narrative with the city’s ongoing narrative, making the whole adventure feel intimate and high stakes.

This isn't to say that there isn't room for the traditional elements of D&D. The city's underbelly might be a literal dungeon, complete with traps and monsters, and the discovery check of hidden lore might lead to the unearthing of forgotten magical items. It's all a part of the balance that makes a good story great.

Running a successful urban noir campaign in D&D requires a blend of social encounters, high stakes, political intrigue, and a good dose of classic dungeon crawling. Embrace the challenge, revel in the narrative opportunities, and lead your players into an experience that they'll talk about long after the campaign has ended. Remember, there’s always more than meets the eye in the mean streets. The city is alive, and it’s waiting for your players to step into its shadows.

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