RPG Creations and Musings.

Posts tagged ‘Night’s Black Agents’

It’s a mystery to me.


A couple of people on RPG blogs I’ve read lately (Baz King and Rabelais, please, take bows) have been looking in detail at investigations in role-playing scenarios, and in particular at the Gumshoe system recently. I thought I’d follow suit.

So what is an investigation in an RPG? It’s following a trail of clues, hopping from scene to scene accordingly, to unravel a mystery. One thing the Gumshoe system does is have you not roll dice for tests to uncover clues; anyone with a relevant skill will automatically uncover any relevant clues in a scene, and can spend points to get non-central clues or extra information. There’s not much more than that to the central investigation mechanic in Gumshoe. If you don’t believe me, here’s a link to the free System Resource Document.

Now, I was a bit sceptical of this at first- it seems like railroading. After all, where’s the challenge in a mystery scenario if the core clues are always uncovered? And the “issue” dealt with by the mechanic- namely a failed skill test meaning a clue isn’t found and the scenario grinding to a halt- is something any competent GM will avoid anyway.

Now, having played a Gumshoe game (the Esoterrorists, played out via video linking on Google+, which is a whole new different topic) and run one (Night’s Black Agents), I look at things a bit differently. What the investigation mechanic does is provide a neat way to handle passing out information, giving a clue in a scene to a player character who’s good at a relevant skill, or who thinks to use one. When I’m constructing a mystery scenario, I want the player characters to solve the mystery. Any clues I construct, I want them to have. Extra information that might help them I want them to have the chance to earn.

I also want uncertainty in the outcome of a scenario, but in a mystery, whether the player characters find out broadly what is going on is not where I want the uncertainty. If they don’t find out broadly what’s going on, the scenario is likely to be a bit rubbish really. Not finding a clue just because a dice roll is failed, and the only consequence of failure is not finding the clue is also a bit rubbish.

So where’s the uncertainty? Well, they might not find out everything, but more importantly, ideally for me, solving a mystery should lead to action, and the process of investigation should carry danger with it. The danger along the way, and the action that’s called for when the mystery is uncovered- that’s where the uncertainty lies. The investigation itself is a vehicle for exploration of the setting and the scenario, and to an extent a pacing mechanism.

It’s only in purist investigative games that the investigation is a puzzle to be solved, and that’s the main point of a scenario. I have the feeling that such pure investigations are a specialist taste among roleplayers. Personally, I like them on occasion, but not as a steady diet.

Investigations, in the form of mystery solving and exploration as part of something else, on the other hand, are a part of many different adventures.

I might return to this topic later on- another thing I’ve been thinking about is sandboxes, and the role of investigations there- but that’s something for a future post.

Night’s Black Agents

At the moment I’m rather enjoying running Night’s Black Agents. The premise of the game is simple- “burned” ex-spies working against a vampire conspiracy across Europe and the Near East. The rules are based on Pelgrane Press‘s Gumshoe system for investigative games. This system is pretty straightforward. Player characters have a bunch of investigative skills and general skills. A major clue (ie: something the GM really wants the party to find) is found automatically by any character who has a relevant investigative skill. Extra information can be found through spending points in investigative skills- and more points gives more information.

General skills work simply too- roll d6, and if the result is high enough, the skill succeeds. Points can be spent from the “pool” of an investigative skill before the roll, but the skill level itself has little direct effect. Night’s Black Agents adds a number of things to this chassis. Uses of the Preparedness skill to have items available and fun things like finding hidden caches of spy type stuff, vehicles or weapons. Network and Cover skills for contacts and alternative identities. More detailed rules for combat and chases, including the use of investigative skills to give bonuses. And some extra optional things I didn’t use, such as rules for Trust and Tag Team Tactical Benefits. I thought they’d add too much complexity and not give so much benefit for our particular group.

Actually, I wasn’t initially all that certain about Gumshoe, though I loved the material on conspiracies and vampires. But after an online game of Esoterrorists, and a more detailed read of the rules (including the thing I always do when running a new system, which is writing out my own summary of the rules to use in play and hand out to the players) I wasn’t just reassured- I was positively enthusiastic.

Well, that’s enough of that- this is intended to be a quick post about our game and how the story’s gone so far rather than a review of Night’s Black Agents or Gumshoe. One thing that bothered me a bit was setting the game in the modern day, simply because I’d want to involve countries I’m familiar with to use those experiences (I’m British, and I’ve lived in Germany, France and Denmark), but there’d be something a bit “off” about involving modern politics- and to my mind a conspiracy’s very political. It would be a bit limiting without involving police corruption or even government ministers for example.

So I set the game in 1968. Not just to avoid that, but because it’s a blooming interesting year. You’ve got the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring, the Paris riots, Andreas Baader blowing up a Frankfurt department store, Swinging London, the arrest of the Krays, police corruption in London and Paris, KGB spies in MI5, the Stasi. That’s just off the top of my head (admittedly off the top of my head after running the game for a few weeks and doing initial research, but still). It’s a complex time, and a great one for spies.

Oh, and here’s my initial diagram of the Vampire Conspiracy, from which I built other things.

Another fun thing in Night’s Black Agents is designing the vampires. I avoided the book’s clever suggestions of alien monsters and mutants, and went for mostly traditional sorts. They have a fairly traditional range of vampiric powers, which mostly can’t be used during the day, though the vampires are otherwise unharmed by sunlight. They can’t be killed except by decapitation, a rowan stake through the heart, or a particular grade of meteorite iron that has been cold-forged so as not to disturb it’s crystalline structure.

A mortal who becomes a vampire (through the drinking of vampiric blood while being drained of their own) goes through a bestial phase in which their humanity is “burned off” before gaining monstrous reason and recovering most of their old memories. Only mortals who are the direct descendants of the Merovingian king actually become “true” vampires, capable of creating others. There is a downside to being a true vampire- mortal beings bleed in their presence. They need agents (whether other vampires, or Renfields- humans dosed with their blood) to do their business.

And there are two clans of vampires fighting a shadow war- the “Bathory clan” and the “Merovingian clan”. More east versus west. I don’t think I’m going to do a full actual play report of my game so far- we’re five sessions into it now- but some highlights are:

  •  Staging a heist on the Natural History Museum in London to steal their meteorite collection.
  •  Scientific experiments on captured vials of True Vampire blood.
  • A player character actually joining the vampire side when tempted. Well, they’d already fallen under the influence through drinking a couple of the aforementioned vials. Long story.
  • One of the player characters inventing mirror shades.
  • The horror hitting home when records looking for one particular missing persons pattern were searched through, and the players realised how many vampires there must be out there.
  • Covert surveillance being one of the main player character strategies.
  • A truly ridiculous husband and wife act two of the player characters put on when they discovered they’d been bugged.
  • A Preparedness check to “remember” a grenade and throw it while fleeing an assassination squad.
  • The player characters developing a healthy caution of the vampires- but being terrified at the prospect of meeting the Krays.

There you go. Not a review or an actual play report. Just a love letter to a game that combines smoke and mirrors spy stuff, quick doses of action, and good old-fashioned investigative horror.