RPG Creations and Musings.

Posts tagged ‘Reviews’

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.

Trad and Indie, and the Heroine RPG

In a “traditional” RPG, there are several players and a game master (GM). In the game, each player controls the actions of a so-called player character (PC), who are the protagonists of an unfolding story, and the game master is responsible for the world and every other character. Each PC has a character sheet, where their skills and in general what they are capable and good at (or bad at) is detailed in terms of game-mechanics.

Within the traditional RPG there is a great variation. Some are quite simple, with the rules fitting into a few pages, and others are heavier on the rules front. Many many genres and settings are covered.

Then there are “indie” RPGs. I don’t like that term- there’s a confusion as to whether it’s used to denote something small-press and creator-owned or something with a certain philosophy of play that differs from the traditional. I’m using it in this post in the second sense (where there is a substantial overlap with the first, though there are many “traditional” RPGs that are also creator-owned). I’m using it because it’s probably the most commonly used term, and I don’t want to introduce more terminology, though Storygame seems to be reasonably popular, and Hippy Game, as used sometimes on UKRoleplayers, I quite like.

Indie RPGs move the focus away from the actions and abilities of the player characters to the story told as a group, to a greater or lesser extent. Some have players as well as the GM make contributions to the narrative rather than just PC actions. Character sheets can be simplified or even done away with entirely. Rules tend to be simple, but often a shared responsibility rather than adjudicated by the GM, who must abide by rules (possibly in a different form) just as much as the players. Some of them share GM responsibility, or do away with the GM entirely, with the rules structuring the story. Many Indie games are extremely focused on a specific type of story, with all of the rules going towards that.

I’m just describing what I see as trends in Indie RPGs here rather than trying to define anything- that’s a game I’m not going to go into. I’m also not going to go near the argument about whether or not some of them are RPGs- even if they’re not, according to whatever definition, they’re clearly closely related, and that’s enough for me. I should also comment that some traditional RPGs do take ideas from Indie RPGs and incorporate them into that framework. It’s not two camps, it’s a spectrum, and I’m most comfortable somewhere in the middle part of the spectrum in most of the RPGs I play, though there are always exceptions.

I mention all this as Josh Jordan has kindly given me an electronic copy of his RPG, Heroine, for review purposes. It’s Indie and it’s rather good, and I thought I’d give some context first.

So what’s it about? Well, there’s a number of pieces of fiction out there that involves a girl growing up who is somehow transported to another world, where she undergoes various heroic experiences in that world, before returning to the real world having learned something about herself, and maybe gaining a more mature perspective. Examples are of course The Wizard of Oz, but also Alice in Wonderland, Coraline, Labyrinth and Mirrormask.

That’s the set-up for the Heroine RPG– a Heroine begins with real life problems in the real world, before being transported, having adventures, facing an antagonist, and returning to the real world having grown more mature and able to cope with a real life obstacle. This is a single story, designed to play out in one game session, with a structure encoded by the game’s rules.

Amongst the players, one plays the Heroine herself, who is undeniably the central player in the narrative, but to a great extent is reacting against what the other players do. Another is the Narrator (basically, the GM). The others play Companions- people accompanying the Heroine in the otherworld. The game is divided into chapters, each of which ends in a central Challenge, which is described mechanically in terms of various “moves” the GM is allowed. The Companion players can simplify or complicate the challenge. The heroine is allowed various moves to respond to the Challenge. These Heroine moves are Be Heroic which means the heroine will behave admirably, but may or may not triumph, Be Successful, which means the heroine succeeds in the challenge, but might not come across very well, or Take a Chance which means the heroine either succeeds and looks brilliant, or fails and looks foolish, with slightly greater odds of the positive outcome than the other two moves.

That’s basically it. There are Drama Points for the Companion and Narrator players, which are needed for certain actions. One of these actions lets a Companion player take over as Narrator, with the Narrator playing a Companion. There are no character sheets- everything is described by the narration and decided by the various moves. You could easily play this with little or no preparation time, even as the Narrator.

By now, you probably know whether the game is for you or not. It’s an easy and clear read, being about sixty pages long, with separate chapters for the Heroine, Narrator and Companion players. It looks delightful, with a nice page background, crisp font, and art in the form of well-done photographs of models in costumes. The PDF is nicely hyperlinked. There’s no index, but it hardly seems needed. There are nice charts summarising the structure at the end. I like it a lot, and I look forward to trying it out in play with the right group.