Night’s Black Agents

Last week, Pelgrane Press made their new GUMSHOE game, Night’s Black Agents, available for preorder. The preorder included a bare-bones-layout version of the game and, being a ravening GUMSHOE fanboy1, of course I had to grab it and spend the weekend reading it.

The premise of Night’s Black Agents is that a small group of ex-official spies – the PCs – working in the modern European intelligence underground stumble across evidence that a conspiracy of vampires2 exists and is now aware of them. To avoid the vampires killing them, the newly clued-in spies must destroy the conspiracy.

That’s the bare-bones, unmodified version of the game. One of the things I like about NBA is that it is eminently customizable, and Ken provides four different modes of play that you can mix and match to get the flavour of spy story that you prefer:

  • Burn Mode focuses on the emotional and social cost of being a spy. Think the Bourne series, or Alias.
  • Dust Mode is the default setting, a gritty thriller-style game, like Three Days of the Condor or Sandbaggers.
  • Mirror Mode is pure Le Carré paranoia and betrayal, where trust is a commodity and identity is fluid.
  • Stakes Mode focuses on the higher purpose that motivates the heroes, highlighting their drive and dedication to get the job done, as seen in James Bond films and Tom Clancy novels.

As I said, you can mix and match these modes to get the right balance for the story you want to tell. You can also decide if the story you’re telling is a thriller, adding in special Thriller Combat and Thriller Chase rules to up the level of action.

The core of the game is the GUMSHOE engine, which has been tweaked to emphasize covert operations rather than pure investigation. The Investigative Abilities see the addition of Human Terrain, Tradecraft, and Vampirology, and the General Abilities get Network, Cover, and Surveillance3. You can also buy some specialty packages that give you a bundle of Investigative and General Abilities – these don’t give you a point discount, but are useful for seeing what kinds of skills an agent would have if they specialized that way.

One interesting tweak4 to character creation is the MOS – Military Occupational Specialty. It lets you pick one General Ability and, once per session, automatically succeed with that ability. It’s an interesting idea, and I think it could lead to some neat metagame resource management. There’s a nice little sidebar that talks about using the MOSs of the team as keystones when the agents are planning an op.

The other major tweak to the system is providing something special – a Cherry – for almost any General Ability with a rating of 8+. These are either something you can do for free (hotwire a car with a Drive of 8+), extra points in Investigative Abilities (1 free point of Diagnosis with Medic 8+), or a new way to spend points from that ability (get an extra die of damage from an explosion for 3 points from Explosive Devices). For the lo-fi Dust Mode, a lot of these Cherries are off the table, but there are a few marked as being appropriate for that style of game.

This iteration of GUMSHOE uses Sources of Stability, but it prescribes what they are. Each agent gets three, one each of Symbol (a representation of an important ideal, like a flag), Solace (a person the agent seeks out for human contact), and Safety (a person and place the agent would flee to without thinking). These three categories are chose to highlight the isolation of being a spy, and also to give the GM some nice, concrete targets when time comes to gut-punch the agent.

There are also twelve Drives to choose from, specifically chosen to fit into the spy genre. These are things like Patriotism, Restoration, Atonement, and Nowhere Else to Go. A sidebar provides some ideas for adding personal arcs, an idea first seen in Ashen Stars. The information here is far less detailed and structured than in AS, if only because NBA does not mirror an ongoing TV serial as tightly as AS.

The rest of the rules are pretty standard GUMSHOE stuff, with the exception of the Thriller rules and Heat. Thriller rules are options for combat and chases that add a more cinematic, over-the-top feel to the game – stuff like extra attacks, called shots, parkour chases across the rooftops, things like that. The book states right up front the fact that adding these in, while making for more extravagant action, will add a layer of complexity to the normally very fast GUMSHOE rules. None of them is overly complicated, but they are more involved than the extremely simple and light base GUMSHOE rules for such things.

Heat is a mechanic to determine how much official notice the actions of the group attract. It’s a number that climbs with every dead body, every police chase, and every heist, and drops only with time or evasion. Heat is rolled during a session to see if the authorities take notice and get involved to complicate everyone’s lives. So, quiet spies are safer spies.

The gear section of the book lays out not only a fun laundry list of spy toys, but also a vampire-hunter’s arsenal. So, beside the comms laser and flash-bangs, you’ll find garlic and wooden bullets5. There are also details on how the agents can get all the good toys, considering they’re likely on the run and on a budget.

Following the gear section is a chapter on special tactics that the agents can use to represent their training. Things like Tactical Fact Finding, which uses Investigative Abilities to gain an advantage in a tactical situation6, or Tag-Team Tactics, which is pretty much what it says on the tin – using one ability to provide a benefit to someone else using a different ability. This chapter also includes a brief primer on Tradecraft and Asset Handling7, and finishes with a short section on Adversary Mapping, to help the group make those neat picture-and-string organized crime diagrams you see in TV and movies.

Next comes vampires. This is where I really fell in love with this game.

Ken Hite, as anyone who has read Trail of Cthulhu or his Suppressed Transmission column knows, is a master of providing a range of options for any single idea, whether it’s an interpretation of a Great Old One or a possible reason the Dogon people know so much about the star Sirius. Here, he turns that skill to vampires, providing a pantry-full of ingredients to let you build the flavour of vampire you like best for your game. There’s a range of origins, powers, weaknesses, and motivations that you can blend together into pretty much whatever kind of vampire you want. To show how it all fits together, he provides four examples of very different vampires ready to be dropped into your game.

I cannot stress enough how much I like this chapter, and this entire approach. One of the problems with using vampires as the main bad guys is that everyone knows all about them, and thus there is no real surprise about what they can do and what they can’t. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that there are dozens – if not hundreds – of different vampire versions out there in the world of fiction8, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. What this chapter does is leverage that fact, drawing on fiction and folklore to provide enough options that the agents will need to do a lot of field testing to make sure they know how to go up against the vampires. It brings uncertainty and fear back into the vampire equation, where it belongs.

Oh, and it makes it clear that vampires are monsters. They are not misunderstood. They feed on and kill humans, whether because they’re evil or because they are alien and indifferent to human suffering. They’re the bad guys, not the dangerous romantic leads.

After the four statted-up versions of vampires, the book provides stat blocks for a few related creatures: the lamia, the bhuta, the dhampir, stuff like that. Handy if you want to throw a supernatural enemy at the agents, but don’t want to go full-on vamp on them just yet.

The last few sections of the book deal with building the conspiracy and campaign. There’s a discussion of what vampires need to survive, what their agenda is, and how to put together a diagram of the conspiracy.

This is my one criticism of the book. While there is a discussion at a high level of vampire motivations and requirements in a conspiracy, and and a discussion of what kinds of things fit in at each level of the conspiracy, and a finished conspiracy diagram9, I would have liked to have seen an example of building that diagram – going from the raw material and thoughts to a concrete finished pyramid. Just a little more guidance here would have been very helpful.

There’s also a good section on quickly roughing-in cities for the game, coming up with the bare minimum to fit the place into your ongoing campaign, as well as a few roughed-in examples and one more detailed city laid out.

The advice that follows, about building stories and the overall campaign, and determining the conspiracy’s reactions to the agents, is meaty and solid. There’s good advice on how to pace things, how to structure things, how to plan, and how to improvise madly when your plan goes off the rails. All in all, a very useful section of the book.

The book ends with an introductory adventure. I don’t want to say too much about it, so as not to spoil things, but it’s got some nice twists, with desperation and paranoia baked right in. It does a good job not only of introducing the vampire conspiracy, but also of showcasing the cold, dark, desperate world that is the espionage underground of modern Europe.

Final thoughts? Of course I love the book. Now, you might dismiss my opinion because I’m an ardent Pelgrane and GUMSHOE fan, but I don’t like the games because I’m a fan. I’m a fan because of the great games.

Specifically, I like this book for a few reasons. First, it provides an interesting combination of genres – you don’t see vampire/spy stuff anywhere else that I know of. There’s not even a whole lot of vampire hunter stuff out there. Second, it makes vampires scary again. They are monsters, and they are horrific and powerful. Third, the structure of the campaign fits the kinds of things I like to do in games. It provides a finite story, of a length determined during play, with a built-in climax that does not guarantee agent success. And fourth, it has enough tools and dials that I can customize the feel of the game to what my players want. Whether we go over-the-top James Bond style, or down-and-dirty George Smiley style, the game has the tools to support and reinforce the feel we decide on. Hell, there are even options for adding weird powers for the heroes, or removing the vampires entirely.

If you like scary vampires, if you like espionage games, if you’re looking for a dark, modern game of horror investigation, I heartily recommend you pick up this book, if not now, then in March when the hardcover is released10. You’ll like it.

  1. Not to mention a ravening Ken Hite fanboy. []
  2. That almost works as a collective noun, doesn’t it? A conspiracy of vampires. Not quite, but getting close. []
  3. There also seem to be more cross-over skills, i.e., General Abilities that you can use as Investigative Abilities. []
  4. Which is not available in Dust Mode. Or rather, it is recommended that it not be available in Dust Mode. []
  5. Not that there’s any guarantee that these will work on the vampires in YOUR game. []
  6. Yeah, that’s kind of convoluted. Best I could boil it down, though. The book makes the use pretty clear, but it is a lengthy explanation. It’s a cool tweak, though. []
  7. Though I found myself wanting more information here. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to my rescue! []
  8. I want to note for the record that sparkling does not appear as one of the vampire powers/weaknesses. Just sayin’. []
  9. Called the Conspyramid. []
  10. I just couldn’t wait that long. []
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7 Responses to Night’s Black Agents

  1. Ingo says:

    Wow. This is a pretty cool (and imho honest) review.

    The Day After Ragnarok is also a great genre mix for Savage Worlds by Mr Hite. Also full of great pulp ideas to pillage.
    I only flipped through the NBA book/PDF and read some parts. Nights Black Agents is a game to sink your teeth, hm, gritty blood sucker fantasies, in.
    I think the strength is to build your own custom vampire background/myth and play with it. Maybe you are right, some more tools to build the conspiracy would be helpful, but as far as I can see – it provides a really good starting point.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    “…but as far as I can see – it provides a really good starting point.”

    Oh, no doubt. And I think it provides more than just a good starting point. My criticism is based on the fact that the game requires a conspiracy – and a certain type of conspiracy, at that. An example of how to build it would have been ice cream on the pie. The pie’s great by itself, but the ice cream adds something special.

    And yeah, Day After Ragnarok is one of my favourite things ever. And I worship Ken Hite like a god for coining the term Speleo-Herpetology.

  3. Interesting – I’d read about this some time ago, back when it was in the initial stages, but it kinda dropped off my radar. I’m also a big fan of Ken Hite, so thanks for reminding me to check this out when it arrives. Quite apart from the vampire angle, it sounds like a great system for emulating ‘Burn Notice’-type stories.

    Also, I don’t know if you were angling for recommendations, but if you’re in the market for vampire/spy fiction you could do worse than to look into Chris Farnsworth’s “Blood Oath”, the first in a series of novels about Nathaniel Cade, the “President’s Vampire”. Come to think of it, the premise of the book (you’ve been drafted into the War On Horror!) would make a great campaign idea for Night’s Black Agents*, when it comes out.

    *Or, admittedly, pretty much every other Urban Fantasy RPG ever.

  4. Ingo says:

    “…but as far as I can see – it provides a really good starting point.” I have not read the complete book, yet. I prefer real books over pdfs/other eformats.
    I think a final verdict is only possible after playing a game. Just reading it is not enough for me. The current “See page XX” includes the following hint:

    “The Dracula Dossier is planning. It’s Night’s Black Agents meets the Armitage Files creating an improvised conspiracy.” (http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=6811)
    I really love Armitage Files! I think this could push the concept over the edge. It could be the tool box for building your own adhoc conspiracy. I am not a big fan of predefined adventures. I prefer the idea / tool box approach (like in Day After Ragnarok), where I can do it my way and change easily what I do not like or think I can do better.

    In my opinion the strength of NBA is, that “normal” human agents can work against any supernatural threat – not just bloodsuckers. The powers and weaknesses of the threat are up to you and your players. This way you can play and break expectations. This is for me the big difference to HUNTER (by White Wolf) – where everything is set in some way.
    For example I like the idea of the Fever Dream suckers by Mr G. R. R. Martin. They are not just unholy undead – they are an old and dying species from the east, with some nice traits. What about a God’s Army like threat… maybe with fangs, if there is any need for them 🙂

    And yes, some more material about building your own conspiracy and twists would be helpful. Hopefully we get more about these topics in upcoming supplements.
    I want more…

  5. Ovid says:

    Very interesting review. Many thanks for putting it up!

    I have one question to a comment you made after: “the game requires a conspiracy – and a certain type of conspiracy, at that.” Could you elaborate on that? While I’m a fan of thrillers like Bourne or spy novels like Tinker, Tailor where the conspiracies are dangerous but limited and imperfect, I really don’t like world-spanning, all-powerful conspiracies.

    Can NBA easily accommodate what I’m looking for or is the ‘omniscient and omnipotent vampire puppeteer’ aspect hardwired into it?

  6. Rick Neal says:

    @Ovid:
    The scale of the conspiracy can be ramped up and down as needed – it would be easy to run a game with a conspiracy like in Bourne or Tinker, Tailor, though they would be necessarily shorter campaigns, simply because a smaller conspiracy means less individual pieces for the characters to investigate. Of course, even Bourne and Tinker, Tailor expand their conspiracies: Treadstone to Blackbriar in Bourne, and Tinker, Tailor is just one piece of the Karla trilogy by Le Carre.

    What I mainly meant by “a certain type of conspiracy” is that there is a default pyramid structure laid out in the game, and discussion of what vampires need (food, money, power) that you have to factor in to the creation of your conspiracy. It’s not all that restrictive, but by default, there are a certain number of levels between the characters and the main antagonists, and each level has a default number of nodes.

    That said, the more I think about it, the less I agree with my “certain type of conspiracy” original statement. I’ve been thinking about how I would set up and run a game, and what my vampires would be like, and what the conspiracy would be like, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the Conspyramid, as they call it, is far less restrictive on the conspiracy structure than it first appeared. I can see putting together a conspiracy that spans the globe and takes years of play to unravel, and I can see putting together a conspiracy that exists entirely within one city and provides fodder for only four or five sessions of play.

    So, yeah, I think it would easily accommodate your desired conspiracy flavour, size, and style.

  7. Ovid says:

    Many thanks again for the answer. That’s very helpful.

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