Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night’s black agents to their prey do rouse.
Macbeth, Act III, Scene II
The Armchair Adventurers Club are at serious risk of losing their GROGNARD credentials. Our gaming experience has been trapped in small period of time between 1981 – 1987 and replicated during this renaissance in the Autumn of our lives. When we reformed in 2010 it was all about rediscovering the games we played together as kids and dusting off old campaigns to relive those experiences, but with a more mature perspective. This year, we pledged to look beyond this period and consciously explore some of the innovations that have influenced RPGs during our deep-freeze.
Earlier in the year, we stepped into the Ninth World of Numenera and its fantastically immersive setting. It was the first time that the concept of ‘spends’ was introduced to the table. We adapted to the mechanic well and enjoyed how it was possible to influence the dice-roll result by investing character resources at key moments. The possibility of failure is always there and we still had some ridiculously bad rolls during the run of play which meant our ‘spending pool’ was quickly exhausted. Of all the innovations within Numenera the most unsettling was the ‘player facing’ element … the GM (Blythy) was irresistibly drawn towards the dice, but the rules of Numenera put the dice exclusively in the hands of players: in combat, monsters don’t successfully hit you, you fail to defend against them.
I’ve been drawn to Nights Black Agents thanks to the relentless promotion of the Dracula Dossier campaign via Ken and Robin talk about stuff podcast. The ingenious idea that there’s been an historical attempt by the British Government to enlist a vampire as a military asset is too good to resist. Add to that, the most audacious player handout in RPG history; DRACULA (Unreacted) the annotated version of Bram Stocker’s fictionalised account of an after action report of successive attempts to deploy and negotiate an unholy alliance between vampires and government.
I was confused by The Dracula Dossier at first, I thought the idea of a ‘stand alone’ campaign meant that I didn’t need the core rules, however a cursory browse in a game shop in Manchester last year, made me realise that there was a core rule book. I assigned my Dragonmeet budget towards NIGHTS BLACK AGENTS and managed to bag myself a signed copy.
There’s something intimating about the game. I suspect it is the pure guile and energy of Kenneth Hite’s intelligence with its innate ability to join together serendipitous historical facts with a great deal of vim and vigour; like the illuminati on hypertextual steroids. I found my internal monologue developing the tone of Hite as I was reading through the rules, which helped, it certainly increased my reading speed. Once you hit the floor and dodge the ideas zipping from the page, you realise that you are completely immersed into the world and filled with inspiration to get going, create characters and set about destroying the vampire conspyramid.
CAN I HAVE A REWIRE?
On first glance of the NIGHTS BLACK AGENTS rules, the GROGNARD brain has little to grab on to, as familiar mechanics seem to have disappeared – where are the character attributes? when do the dice come in? how do the characters stay alive? More than Numenera, Nights Black Agents is developed on the back of innovations in indy gaming in the early part of the last decade. The emphasis of the game is the collaborative construction of story around a conceptual setting: Jason Bourne thrillers meet hammer house of vampires.
The GM becomes a ‘Director’ helping the players to emulate the thrills of a cinematic experience by using devices such as scene-framing and choosing the mode of play – what kind of spy movie do you want appear in? One where your agents are burned out by the job? One where you can’t trust anyone? One where the punches really hurt?
The players and directors and settle on the style of game they want to play and start to build up the skills and background colour that creates a character dossier. There’s some great backgrounds to choose from, such as a ‘Wet Worker’ (an assassin) or a ‘Cuckoo’ (an operative in deep cover). The central mechanic is the GUMSHOE system used in Trail of Cthulhu and EsoTerrorists. As the player characters are built, they assign points to Investigative abilities such as Forensic pathology, photography, Streetwise or Bull Shit Detector. These skills are spent during the game to get extra information above and beyond the core clues. Hunting for clues is always successful, to move the narrative forward; its not the hunting for clues that is the fun element of the game, it’s knowing what to do with the information once you have it.
In NBA the Gumshoe mechanics are souped up to provide general abilities that match the thriller element of the game. These include Athletics, Shooting, Driving or infiltration, the character is built by assigning points to these abilities which can then be spent in the game to influence the result of a contest. The Director sets a number to resolve challenges and the players roll a 1D6 to see if they do it or not.
They also have the option to spend to increase the chance of success, or even ensure success, so they have the opportunity to spend their skill points. Want to do a handbrake turn in the centre of the freeway to escape pursuit? Give me 4 … you’ll need to spend something from your driving pool to have a chance of success. In addition, there are ‘cherries’ to skills to give an extra level of bad-assness. Additions such as ‘Grand Theft Auto’ so you can boost vehicles as required.
My favourite element is the ability for the players to spend points building a Network; when they come into a city, they can describe contacts that are located in the area that they know – a local Hells Angel, a former girl-friend, an associate – they can assign points to them and use them as a resource to provide assistance in the mission.
Part of the challenge for the players is to think like a super-spy and have a bold outlook towards hurtling into harms way when all your RPG instincts tell you to be cautious. A tactical approach is rewarded and there are clever ways of deploying skills to defuse situations to provide an advantage, but the real fun comes from barging through places like Jason Bourne, regardless of the collateral damage.
Although I’d committed to the Dracula Dossier as a campaign, I knew that I wanted to break them into the tone of the game before we embarked on a ‘collaborative and improvisational’ mode. Pelgrane Press have plenty of resources to help the neophyte director find their feet.
After the character dossiers were created, I used EXCESS BAGGAGE (a downloadable demo game) which is an in media-res car chase through the streets of Krakow. A portable nuclear bomb has been stolen from a military facility, the agents are already in pursuit. It’s an opportunity to use the ‘Chase’ mechanic provided in NBA to track the excitement of a thriller chase and closing the gap during the hunt. Whether its gear-grinding driving, or clever free-running over roof tops, the chase rules are a nifty way of managing the successes and failures and providing cinematic colour.
Once the pre-credit sequence was over, a clue in the recovered attaché case led them to Odessa, and the opening section to THE ZALOZHNIY QUARTET, a free sample of which is also available on the Pelgrane site including some handy hints on how to knit the scenario into The Dracula Dossier. The scenario sets up the agents on a surveillance mission, tracking contraband passing over the Black Sea through Turkey from Iraq. They uncovered something more sinister than they were expecting, on the sight of coffin-shaped cargo, you could sense the tempo of the table change. It was the moment they were drawn into the setting. They’re now on a run for their lives to a safe house in Vienna.
ON THE RUN
Thanks to the Peregrane Press resources, the first game went really well, introducing the key elements of the game and presenting some very dramatic scenes. The players developed their confidence and were more sure-footed when the confrontation with the bad guys happened. This will develop further when they have a better grasp of how to use the skills to good effect. They work a little like spells in D&D, where it’s possible to impress your friends with your ingenuity as you apply the skills in an inventive manner, “using my Architecture skill, I consider the age of the building, and possible exits …”
The shift in the centre of gravity from the GM to the players was gradually done during the session. One of the rules that came up during the run of play is the idea of ‘retries’. If you fail, you fail, and can’t have another go. “Shot your wad” as it says in the rules and you can only have another attempt if you can come up with a clever way of explaining your next attempt. This gave them the sense of participating in the generation of the story.
On the whole, it feels like Gumshoe would work better with a bigger group as it would allow the feeling of the spotlight shifting from player to player as their specialism comes into effect. The rules accommodate two player teams by adjusting the build points accordingly, but having another player in the mix would help the share the burden of fast-thinking and creating additional story elements.
At the next session, I will be laying the foundation for the revelation of the weightiest player-handout in history – Dracula Unredacted – so they’ll choose the path of the leads they want to follow and we’ll mutually compose a narrative adventure on the fly.
At that stage, the conversion will be complete, but until then, I’m clutching a random encounter table and a clove of garlic in my breast pocket. While I hold on to them, I’ll always be a Grognard.