A Lazy Sequence

Night's Black Agents

29 June 2012

This is a review of Kenneth Hite’s new role-playing game, Night’s Black Agents, published by Pelgrane Press. My review is based on the preorder [REDACTED] edition available from Pelgrane’s website. This edition has a roughly formatted and illustration-less PDF and (recently) ePub and Android app version of the book. While this edition has been playtested, it is still a draft and some details will probably change in the final product.

With that out of the way, what is Night’s Black Agents (NBA)? It has been informally pitched as Jason Bourne vs The Vampires, but it describes itself (on page 5 of the [REDACTED] edition) as:

Night’s Black Agents is “a vampire spy thriller.” default setting is a world of horror and shadows, with flashes of action. Its upbeat lands on the thrills and the flavor, with espionage and problem-solving on the downbeat to set up the action.

It is the latest incarnation of Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE system designed by Robin D. Laws, and now featured in sixi games including Hite’s excellent Trail of Cthulhu. Hite is one of my favorite RPG authors, and Trail of Cthulhu is one of my favorite gamesii, so this game is one I have been excited to see: it does not disappoint.

Night’s Black Agents is a complete game. The text cover character creation, rules and advice for running the game, vampire, conspiracy and city creation, examples for these, and a sample scenario to get your group started. The [REDACTED] Edition weights in at 225 pages.

GUMSHOE In General

If you are not familiar with GUMSHOE, the system is simple and stream lined: Characters are largely defined by pools of ability points that are a moments of awesome currency. Players spend points to indicate that they want a chance to be cool and have some spotlight time. Characters start the game as badasses. Abilities are classified as either Investigative or General.

Investigative abilities enable the procedural parts of the game to run smoothly, and spending points from these pools allows players have characters show off specialist knowledge and skills, and provides room for player creativity in adding new details to the world, such as introducing NPCs (i.e. contacts), and gaining advantages later in the scenario. One much talked about feature of these rules is that characters always find core cluesiii if they act appropriately; you won’t miss anything simply by failing a roll.

General abilities include everything from health and mental stability to skill at driving, shooting etc. These pools are larger than those of the investigative abilities and are spent slightly different. General abilities are tested by rolling a single six sided die and adding zero or more points from the appropriate ability pool and aiming to equal or beat a (generally hidden) target number. Thus, these pools act not only as moments of awesome currency but also as finite resources to managed throughout the scenario.

Both kinds of ability pools do not strictly represent character competency. When you run out of points in a given pool, your character is still competent in that field, but narratively you have exhausted your potential spotlight time in that domain. This might be a tripping point for some players; if you do not enjoy games that model story rather than physics, this game is not for you.

Pelgrane refers to GUMSHOE as a player facing system. This means that in the majority of cases the players roll all the dice, and NPCs are briefly stated out, mostly as modifiers. For example, a NPC does not have a sneaky ability, they have an stealth modifier that is added to the player character’s sense trouble or surveillance roll.

Earlier versions of GUMSHOE rules tend to describe a traditional GM lead style of play, but each successive revision of the game has put more emphasis on player input. This is particularly noticeable in the suggestions for investigative point spending benefits. More on this later.

One feature of GUMSHOE in play that I appreciate as a GM is that it gets out of the way: There is minimal fussing with the dice, and NPCs and monsters have small, easy to manage stat blocks due to the player facing design. This leaves me free to worry about more important things like NPC activities and other story details.

GUMSHOE in Night’s Black Agents

If you are familiar with GUMSHOE from another game, NBA tweaks the familiar formulation from a pure investigative ‘slow chase’ of procedural narratives to focus on spy craft, action, and thrills. There are too many new rules and tweaks to look at everything, so instead I will just mention some fun additions that stood out while I read through.

NBA sets out to provide a lot of tools to allow the GM to tune the game to their group’s preferences. This includes rules for creating a wide variety of vampires and conspiracies. There are also four optional modes: Burn, Dust, Mirror and Stakes. Each of these changes the overall flavor of the game. There are also three variations to the game to play vampire free spy vs spy games (be that James Bond or Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy), Cthulhu Mythos in place of the vampires (requires Trail of Cthulhu), and finally psychic spies vs vampires (apparently this is like Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series which I have not read). Fans of Timothy Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch might particularly enjoy the Trust mechanics that haven incorporated into the Mirror mode.

Action – as you might expect from a spy thriller – is host to many new options. The combat rules are bundled together as Thriller Combat Rules, and Chases (more below) get fleshed out.

Characters

The players take the role of a group of former spies and secret agents who having left their respective agencies, have for some reason or other stumbled across a vampire conspiracy, and now they are hunted by the vampiresiv.

The list of character abilities has been updated to reflect the genre of the game, and special rules around character creation have been modified to appropriately anchor the player characters to the stories being created.

Characters in NBA are particularly badass. To emphasis this, nearly every general ability has a “cherry” that gives characters access to special rules if their rating is over 8. Some of these rules are only available when certain modes, or the Thriller Combat Rules, are in play. For example, a character with a rating of 8+ in Preparedness, not only can claim to have brought the required-in-a-pinch item with them when need, but can retroactively narrate additional prepared details such as having “a traffic-snarling parade whose route you researched before the operation began”, or “a bomb threat evacuating the mall”. These cherries are all evocative and help establish not only how cool the characters are, but the genre conventions as well.

Two general abilities worth talking about are Cover and Networks. These two abilities support genre staples and are smartly implemented. Unlike most general abilities, these two pools are not spent to be added to die rolls, but are instead converted into false identities and network contacts respectively. Unlike most abilities, Networks and Cover (and the contacts and identifies created with them) do not replenish automatically: you must spend build points gained in play.

For example, Networks lets you create contacts from before the game began who are willing to help you out. You simply spend points from their pools to access things you could not access yourself. If you let a contact’s pool drop to zero that person is either killed by the conspiracy or turned. A devious (and fun) rule in mirror games is that once per session, the Director (GM in the games lingo) picks a single contact and rolls to see whether they have been flipped. This rule underscores the doubt and mistrust inherent in the mode.

Chases

Dramatic chases are a staple of spy thrillers and NBA has provides a range of options to support different levels of chase:

  • A standard contest using the typical GUMSHOE resolution.
  • A Thriller Chase; these are intended for big set-pieces.
  • An Extended Chase that lasts a whole operation or covers hundreds of miles.

I really like it when systems provide levels of complexity for various narrative weights. Burning Wheel’s Verses, Bloody Verse, Fight! and Mouse Guard’s Verses, Contest escalations are another great example. Targeting the amount of game time to the narrative importance of the scene allows the GM to better manage the pacing and tension of the session.

The Thriller Chase mechanics allow for exciting, narrative focused chases. The basic premise is that there is a Lead being tracked; this is the distance between the runner and pursuer. The chase ends when the lead reach either 0 (the purser wins) or 10 (the runner wins).

GUMSHOE encourages players to enthusiastically take ownership of their own characters’ badass exploits, and in a thriller chase everybody gets to chip in. Any player involved in, or just watching, a thriller chase should feel free to contribute exciting details…

A great detail here is that the rules provide four iconic chase locations and example lists of ten thrilling elements for the GM or other players to throw in. Exciting chases are fueled on the participants reacting to new obstacles, so having these jumping of points is excellent.

Extended Chases up the ante even further. Extended Chases combine elements from the rules for Heat – which is the unwanted attention the agents gain crossing Europe causing a ruckus – and Lead from Thriller Chase, into Hot Lead. The Extended Chases are not tested like a typical contest or chase, but instead various actions (such as cross borders, encounters with the enemy, successful thriller chases, etc) cause the Hot Lead to shift. The agents may also spend their Hot Lead as points for a variety of uses such as gaining time to tool up, rest and recover etc. I am looking forward to using this mechanic to drive an operation.

Operations and Campaigns

As mentioned earlier, NBA is less GM directed than earlier GUMSHOE games.

…In Night’s Black Agents, the “assignments” often come from the players themselves: they have an agenda of their own, and between the adversary map and loose ends from the previous operation, they usually have an immediate goal in mind to further it…

Nevertheless, the GM is still going to have to do some work to prepare the campaign, if not the individual sessions. There are four thematic sources for vampires: Supernatural, Damned, Alien, and Mutant. While there is a concrete example of each, these are classifications the GM uses to guide the creation of their own campaign specific vampire. No worrying about point-buy, create whatever suits your concept. There is a lot of breadth in the ideas and powers presented here. I particularly liked the example implementation of Alien vampires that draws from Tim Powers’ novel Declare as it highlights how far you can deviate from the tradition concept of a vampire.

Conspiracies and geographic concerns such as cities and factions (human and supernatural) receive similar attention. This is all up to the high standard I have come to expect from Pelgrane and Hite; fun to read, and packed full of ideas.

If you have read the GM advice in earlier GUMSHOE products and were put off, make sure you check out the Stories section; GUMSHOE best practice and wisdom has come a long way since The Esoterrorists, and even Trail of Cthulhu. The advice in this section is clear, organized into small, applicable chunks and practical. There is none of the vague, pontificating style that many GM sections fall in to. There is again discussion of railroading in games with investigation, but it has shed the slightly defensively tone than earlier books had.

There are many suggestions and guidelines on how to run an improvisational game, and how to switch between a prepared scenario and improvised content on the fly. I have mentioned before that I like this trend in GUMSHOE products. This content is valuable regardless of the game you are running.

When I run a game, I like to have a structure to work against; creating interesting hooks and plot points in a vacuum – especially off the cuff – is a real challenge for me. Much of the content in the GMs section provides suggestions about the default operation and campaign structure, and how to work with or change up that structure in play. I particularly like the notes on the overall campaign arc, what to expect from the players at each stage and what to provided to keep the story engaging without being overwhelming.

As an example of this, one of my favorite tools for aiding GM improvisation is the Vampyramid. This is a table of sorts that suggests possible antagonist responses from the vampires as the agents progress up the hierarchy of the conspiracy. The mechanic is simple, but the detail on each suggestion contains enough material to springboard some action/complicate the plot, while being brief enough for the GM to reference during play.

Support

There are currently two produces slated to support NBA: The Zalozhniy Quartet and The Dracula Dossier. Preorders who purchase the [REDACTED] edition gain one operation and some background material from of the Zalozhniy Quartet.

The Zalozhniy Quartet is a set of four (potentially) interlinked scenarios in the familiar style of canned scenarios. The scenarios are high action affairs with vampires and Russian occult-wielding mobsters. The Zalozhniy Quartet does not preconfigure the vampires and instead is designed to be able fit in with the GMs own vampires and campaign. This looks like a lot of fun and could provide either a full campaign, to useful drop-in content.

The Dracula Dossier is perhaps more interesting. Currently there is less information about this, so take the following with a grain of salt. This campaign leans heavily on the player driven gameplay that NBA favors, and takes the ideas developed in the Armitage Files for Trail of Cthulhu. Rumour is that the book will contain an ‘unredacted’ version of Stoker’s Dracula, as annotated by three generations of British Secret Service analysts. This becomes an uber-prop for the players who can dig through it looking for clues to follow. If the Armitage Files is any indication, this may prove to be a fantastic resource.

Wrapping Up

Hite and Pelgrane have put together another game that tugs at my attention and screams ‘Play Me Now’. The reformulation of GUMSHOE for the genres the game operates in is deftly handled; the new rules (especially mode specific rules) work to support the genre and should be able to be brought in incrementally. I like the continued shift in GUMSHOE towards greater GM and Player collaboration of the narrative while still retaining the traditional rpg approach. I found the text an enjoyable read; even in what should be dry material, Hite has managed to keep the text fast moving and entertaining.

The game is set up to reward a groups investment in the rules and mode of play. The text encourages smart, on the fly badassery, with frequent player creativity. If your group hasn’t played in this style before, the players should probably read over the at least the three pages on Advice to Players to get everyone on the same page. GMs should definitely read the Story section and use the advice there to ease their group into the game. I particularly like Awakening the players on page 182. NBA could have ended up as a game that only experienced groups should consider, but the advice for both players and GMs provides a sensible ramp up; I would be comfortable trying this game out with new role-players.

See Also

Appendix: Actual Play Reports

I have not had a chance to run the game myself, so I have been enjoying the game vicarious though some actual play reports:

Footnotes

  1. Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, and now Night’s Black Agents.
  2. In general I like games that fall in the space between traditional games such as D&D, Pathfinder, GURPS, BRP etc and the more hippy Story Games/“indie” styles. For example, Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard games are other favorites of mine.
  3. A core clue is simply one that must be discovered for the continuation of the story. A scenario will frequently have many more clues that are not essential but provide more color, detail and grist for the players to unravel the mystery.
  4. Vampire PCs are frowned upon, but nevertheless rules are provided.