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 fanboy ((Not to mention a ravening Ken Hite fanboy.)), 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 vampires ((That almost works as a collective noun, doesn’t it? A conspiracy of vampires. Not quite, but getting close.)) 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 Surveillance ((There also seem to be more cross-over skills, i.e., General Abilities that you can use as Investigative Abilities.)). 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 tweak ((Which is not available in Dust Mode. Or rather, it is recommended that it not be available in Dust Mode.)) 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 bullets ((Not that there’s any guarantee that these will work on the vampires in YOUR game.)). 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 situation ((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.)), 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 Handling ((Though I found myself wanting more information here. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to my rescue!)), 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 fiction ((I want to note for the record that sparkling does not appear as one of the vampire powers/weaknesses. Just sayin’.)), 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 diagram ((Called the Conspyramid.)), 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 released ((I just couldn’t wait that long.)). You’ll like it.

Trail of Cthulhu Playtest

This past Saturday evening, my friend Michael ran a playtest of Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press, written by Ken Hite. I talked a little bit about reading the game way back here, but this is the first time I’ve played it.

One of the big things standing in the way of running a playtest of the game is the character creation system. It’s complex enough, with enough choices the players need to make at every step, that it requires a pretty solid understanding of the rules before building characters. And, in a playtest, you can’t count on the players to read any of the rules. So, that means pregenerated characters, which takes more time for the GM. Also, the points you get for investigative abilities are based on the number of characters in the game, so if you’re doing pregens, you need to know how many people will be playing – in my experience, not always possible with a playtest or one-shot.

In short, I’ve always thought that Pelgrane Press could do themselves a big favour by posting some pregens for their GUMSHOE games – ideally, complete parties of two, three, four, and five characters. It certainly would have got me playing the games a lot sooner.

This need has been met for ToC by an introductory scenario available for download on their site: The Murderer of Thomas Fell. While the characters are specifically for the scenario, they can certainly be used in other adventures.

Now, I’m not going to give you a bunch of spoilers – we played the game, we sort-of-solved the mystery, and we kinda-won – which is par for the course in a Purist Cthulhu game. We all had fun and liked both the system and the story. After the game, we had a bit of a discussion about it, and came up with these thoughts:

  • The game really demands a fair bit of input from players to keep it from devolving into a story being read to you by the Keeper. Specifically, the players need to develop familiarity with their abilities – especially the investigative abilities – and how to use them in the scenes. Otherwise, it can become a case of the Keeper asking, “Okay, who’s got Accounting? There’s an Accounting clue here.” Now, this will come with practice, both the input from the players in the correct circumstances (“I use Accounting to look through the papers in his business desk to see if there’s anything hinky.”) and the way the Keeper deals with it.
  • Combat is fast and can be surprisingly deadly. Especially for humans. The bad things are always tougher than you. And this is as it should be. There was a wonderful feeling of panic in the one real combat we had in the game.
  • The lightness of the rules really lets roleplaying shine through. Even with the pregens, pretty much everything that happened was the result of character personality interacting with the situation. The ending of the adventure was pretty much entirely dictated by the emotions of the characters, with very little in the way of dice rolling or use of rules. And I found that ending to be immensely satisfying, dramatically speaking.
  • Specialization among the characters is key. While the spend mechanic means that the person with the highest rating in a skill can only outdo the others a limited amount of time, it’s good to have at least one relevant investigative ability at a higher level than the others in the group have. My character had only a couple of irrelevant ones at high levels, and he didn’t get to find as many clues, etc. Which is okay in a single session, but would get tiring over time in a campaign.
  • The scene mechanic – letting the players know when the characters have got all the available clues from a scene and telling them to move on – was something that I thought would be awkward and artificial in play, but really worked very nicely. The first time Michael used it, it was a little disorienting and surprising, but then it just worked very smoothly.

All in all, a fun game and a big success. Thanks to Michael for beating me to running the game, and to Sandy, Jen, Fera, and Tom for playing with us.

Now I just need to convince Michael to run a campaign…

Home Again

I’m back from GenCon. As always, it was a real blast. I got back around 9:00 last night, and had to be up for work this morning, so my recollection is kind of chaotic, but I want to talk a little bit about it while it’s fresh.

Here we go, in no particular order:

  • Once again, I spent my time with Scott Glancy of Pagan Publishing and Jared Wallace of Dagon Industries, both fine gentleman. We shared the both with Shane Ivey and the Arc Dream Publishing crew, and they were a good bunch of fellows, as well.
  • Greg Stolze spent a lot of time in the both, flogging his games Reign and Dirty World. I got to know Greg back in the days I was writing for Unknown Armies, and it’s always a pleasure to spend some time with him.
  • Ken Hite, one of my favourite connoisseurs of the weird and the real and the intersection of the two, stopped by a few times. He’s got a new book out: Tour de Lovecraft. It’s a collection of his blog entries, and takes you on a tour through all 51 of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. Good, good stuff. I bought two.
  • I got to touch base with Fred Hicks and Lenny Balsera of Evil Hat. They were both pretty busy, but it was good to shake hands and attach faces to names. Nice folks.
  • At the Pagan booth, we had the printer’s proof of one of their next books, Mysteries of Mesoamerica. My good friend and GenCon traveling partner, sculptor Clint Staples, wrote a big chunk of the book, and it’s been a long time coming out. But it’s more than worth the wait. This book is absolutely beautiful!
  • Had dinner a couple of nights with Gwen and Brian from Sigh Co. Met them last year, and they’re very nice people. Good to see them again.
  • Fantasy Flight Games is rapidly becoming the powerhouse of the show. I bought a new expansion for Arkham Horror from them that I didn’t even know was coming – The Black Goat of the Woods. There were about four other games I would have liked to pick up, but the budget can only be stretched so far.
  • Last year, I passed on the Campaign Coins, and I regretted it. This year, I bought the starter set, and feel much better about myself. They’re very nice.
  • Also picked up Aces & Eights, BRP, and Alpha Omega. Haven’t had much chance to get into them yet, though. Look for thoughts in future posts.
  • Didn’t get to play in Scott Glancy’s playtest this year, but he did talk to me some about the scenario and his thinking behind it. I just want to go on record as saying that there is something broken inside his very soul if he can come up with stuff like that, and I thank him for it.
  • Seemed to be a larger female turnout this year. More, there seemed to be more females buying game product for themselves this year. I like to see this; the hobby has a lot to offer everyone, regardless of gender, and it’s good to see it grow.
  • For those interested, the final tally for the count on Saturday was 43*.

So, it was a good trip, and I had a lot of fun. Thanks to everyone I spent time with down there. You guys are what makes the trip worthwhile.


*Those who know don’t need to ask. Those who ask don’t need to know.

Trail of Cthulhu

I got my copy of Trail of Cthulhu this week. It’s a new implementation of the Call of Cthulhu game, using Robin D. Laws’s GUMSHOE system, and it was written by Ken Hite.

I like it.

Now, I like the original game, too, a whole lot. But in many ways, I think I might prefer the new one. I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know after I play a session or two.

Let’s talk about why I like the new game, though.

  1. It’s written by Ken Hite. If you aren’t familiar with the name, then you really need to pick up Nightmares of Mine, Suppressed Transmission, and Suppressed Transmission 2. The man knows his weird stuff, and builds it into supremely gameable constructions. He’s been a hero of mine since I started reading his column in Pyramid Magazine, and he achieved godlike status with the coining of the word “speleo-herpetologist.” There’s a pretty short list of folks I’d trust with a new version of a Lovecraft game, and he’s on it. Near the top. At least twice.
  2. No more missed clues. The GUMSHOE system of Robin Laws removes the bane of investigation-based games: you can’t get stuck with no way forward because you missed the roll for the vital clue. In the game, if you’ve got the right ability, and you use it, you get whatever clue it might provide automatically. The game becomes less about finding the clues and more about interpreting them.
  3. The Great Old Ones. Ken’s take on them is great. First of all, he doesn’t give them stats, very reasonably treating them as plot devices. When one of the big boys – Cthulhu, Hastur, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, etc. – show up, it either means that you’ve really got to hurry with the ritual to banish it, or you’ve already lost and should just embrace your new role as mindless servitor or dinner. Beyond that, he gives five or six different interpretations of each of them, some wildly contradictory, that characters may find in their research. Because these beings are essentially unknowable by humans, I think that works very well.
  4. The creatures. Lesser beings are nicely statted up, and include a great little section on what sorts of clues they may leave behind, which is immensely helpful for a GM. They are, all of them, nasty in the extreme. As it should be.
  5. The fun little sanity games. The book includes suggestions to get the other players working with the GM to make the player whose character has gone insane feel confused and disoriented, not just the character.
  6. Tons of good GM advice. Specifically for running this game with this system, but a lot of it is just good, solid advice for any horror or investigation game.
  7. Campaign frameworks. Three ready-to-use setups for ongoing play, talking about who the characters are and why they do what they do, and what they tend to run into. They include one fairly standard Lovecraftian framework, one proto-Delta Green framework, and one very interesting one involving shady rare book dealers in London.

The book also has an introductory scenario, but I haven’t decided how much I like it. On the one hand, it’s a great little mystery that shows Ken’s ability to mix real-world history with mythology and deep weirdness. On the other hand, it doesn’t deal very directly with any specific aspect of the Cthulhu mythos, though it does talk about what may be behind the whole mess. As an adventure, I like it a great deal, but I think I would have preferred a more standard Cthulhoid example.

All in all, I think this is a very interesting, well-done game, and I can’t wait to try it out. I’ll post the results after I have a chance to run it.

Right now, though, I have to get ready for the final Dresden Files playtest session tonight.