Sunday, February 2, 2014

Night's Black Agents (First Impression)

I've been intrigued by Gumshoe, an investigative system by well-known designer Robin D. Laws, for a while now.  The system offers a variety of setting-specific games, and before the announcement of Edge of the Empire I was considering Ashen Stars for a sci-fi game.  After I started playing EotE I wanted a completely different type of game to test the investigative waters with, and so my gaze turned toward Trail of Cthulu.  Unfortunately, I couldn't really see my group getting into a horror game, and likewise the lack of action and combat support probably wouldn't go over so well with them either.  Then I stumbled upon Night's Black Agents, and it appeared to be the perfect compromise between "I want to try out an investigative game" and "something my group might actually play."

So what kind of setting is Night's Black Agents anyways?  The short answer is that it's a modern spy thriller with vampires.  To go into a little more depth, the default assumption is that there's a vampire conspiracy, and the PCs are rogue agents trying to get to the bottom of it and stop the vampires (with the first mission usually being the one where the PCs discover the existence of vampires).  The GM outlines the campaign structure using a "Conspiramid," which is a pyramidal graphic that shows different nodes of the conspiracy from "street level" at the bottom (gangs, drug runners, etc. that might not even know they're working for vampires) all the way to the big guys with pointy teeth at the top.  Maybe pointy teeth, anyways.  There's a whole chapter on vampires - over 40 pages - and its dedicated almost entirely to creating your vampires.  The term "vampire" is used really loosely here, and it's mostly up to the GM how they want to portray their vampires.  There are 4 main categories which include Supernatural (based on various vampire mythologies from cultures around the world), Damned (your typical cross-fearing, burned-by-holy-water vampires), Alien (could be anything, even sanity-draining sentient meteor rocks), and Mutant (this category's vampiric viruses and similar ilk will provide a very different experience).  The book does an excellent job of outlining different elements of what might pass for vampire lore, and guiding GMs in combining it together to create essentially a stat block.

And so a concept like "vampires" (which, let's face it is pretty overdone these days) is actually a lot less specific than it sounds.  But also worth mentioning is that there's an alternative "mode" that the game can be played in that leaves vampires out entirely; it's perfectly reasonable to run a more traditional spy thriller using these rules.  You'll just have less supernatural weirdness, and the guys at the top of your Conspyramid will be regular old human bastards.

Speaking of "modes," the no vampires variant (Martini, Straight Up) is presented near the end of the book along with The Dunwich Sanction (a more Lovecraftian version of the game that basically combines Night's Black Agents with Trail of Cthulu) and Special Assets (the agents themselves have psionic/super powers).  But at the very beginning of the book are 4 modes designed to tweak gameplay within the parameters of the default setting (vampire spy thriller).  Each mode has an associated symbol, and when you come across that symbol in the main body of the book it means that particular rule is designed for use in that mode.  Modes can be mixed and matched to customize the flavor that the GM is going for.  These modes are Burn (which highlights character development and the psychological damage that these missions have on the agents and those around them), Dust (for a grittier, less cinematic espionage game), Mirror (a socially complex labyrinth where everyone has a hidden agenda, betrayal and corruption are rampant, and your NPC allies or even other PCs might not be entirely trustworthy), and Stakes (higher-stakes campaigns where ethics and a PC's drives are at the forefront).  This is one of my favorite features of the game, for its straightforward transparency and useful advice for helping a GM choose specific rules elements that alter the "feel" of the game that they have in mind.
Now I'd like to shift gears a little bit.  I'm not trying to do an exhaustive review of the game's mechanics, but a brief overview of what a PC looks like is probably useful.  This game might have the longest skill list of any that I've read or played, and that's usually a negative for me.  However, the skills are split into General Skills and three categories of Investigative abilities (Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical).  The General skills are those active abilities that typically show up in a skill list (Athletics, Digital Intrusion, Explosives, Driving, Hand to Hand, etc.).  This skill list isn't actually that long.  Gumshoe might be described as a point-spend system, in that you give your skills a rating which determines your pool of points that you can spend when rolling for that skill.  Task resolution is a simple d6, and each point you spend from your pool on a roll grants you a +1 bonus to that result.  So if you spend 1 point when your difficulty is 4, you'll succeed by rolling a 3 or higher.  Your pool refreshes at the end of an operation, or sometimes you'll gain partial refreshes through special abilities or from tactical fact-finding benefits (player-driven in-game advantages).  Your pool only represents your PC's physical proficiency at a given skill indirectly; the primary goal is to model "spotlight time," and usually the better you are at something the more spotlight time you'll want your agent to get with that task.  The default assumption is that PCs are experienced spies, and they all start out pretty badass.

The investigative abilities work a little differently, and they're at the heart of the Gumshoe system.  They're also point-based, but the point values are much smaller (typically 1-3).  If you're trained with a given skill (i.e. you have a rating of at least 1) then you're automatically given any core clues in the investigation.  Core clues are clues needed for the plot to advance.  As an example, when an agent Interrogates (an interpersonal investigative ability) a captive they'll automatically be granted any core clues that the captive has knowledge of; that much success is assumed.  If the agent spends a point (or two) from Interrogation, they'll force the captive to divulge additional information that will provide the PCs with an advantage later, or supplemental clues that might flesh out the investigation and make things easier.  The point of this mechanic is to avoid the classic issue (I'll pick on D&D here) of "I roll my Intimidate check; oh crap, rolled a 3, that's a failure" and then the party hits a dead end.  While some games with pass/fail mechanics use a "fail forward" philosophy to avoid this, Gumshoe's method puts that assumption front-and-center so it's crystal-clear to the PCs that they'll discover all of the essentials that are within their sphere of expertise.  Ultimately the more interesting thing in an investigative game is not whether or not the PCs discover a clue, but what they do with that information.

Night's Black Agents is supposedly one of the more "action heavy" Gumshoe games, and its Thriller Combat and Thriller Chase rules do indeed have a level of crunch that will probably satisfy my players.  Personally I prefer crunch-medium games, and I'd say this falls at the lower end of that category.  Things like Called Shots, Jumping In, Support Moves, Mook Shields, etc. provide PCs with enough meaningful choices in combat to keep things exciting and to offer plenty of tactical opportunities.  That said, fire fights are quite dangerous, and this isn't a game where you can just run up to someone pointing a gun at you and expect to survive the experience (there is a specific rule that covers that situation, and it's a nasty one!).  You'll have to fight smart, rely on stealth when possible, and know when to run.  By default it still favors high action though (though Dust mode is less forgiving), and the rules are generally pretty abstracted.  You won't find fiddly rules for equipment and vehicles here.  Much like 13th Age has a die size for general weapon groups (1 vs 2 handed weapons, martial vs simple vs light weapons), in Night's Black Agents damage will be a d6, with damage modifiers ranging from -2 (for a kick or punch) to +2 (for heavy firearms).  Likewise vehicles simply have an abstract Speed, Maneuverability, and possibly notes (such as whether it's an off-road vehicle, or whether it has special armor).

Because this a core book that combines what in D&D would be the PHB, DMG, and MM, there's a wealth of GMing advice in it.  Some of it is just generally valuable for running an investigative game and can be system-neutral (if, for example, you're running an investigative adventure as part of a larger campaign in a different system).  Most of the prep work involves figuring out what kind of vampires you want, at least filling out part of a Conspyramid, and writing up a quick city background or two.  It seems to be very front-loaded, which makes sense since laying out clues would be very difficult if you didn't have a good idea of who was at the higher levels of your Conspyramid.  There's also a generic "Vampyramid" that details vague responses that your conspiracy might have as your PCs start acting against the different nodes and levels of the Conspyramid (these responses are general enough that the Vampyramid doesn't need to be custom-built; a low-level response like "frame agent" can be adapted to a vast array of specific situations, so the pre-built Vampyramid can apply to virtually any campaign even if it lacks vampires).  The combination of Conspyramid and Vampyramid reminded me of the functionality of Fronts from Dungeon World (a game that I'd recommend for its GMing advice alone).  It was interesting to see a take on that concept presented in such a drastically different way, specialized so heavily to a specific niche (a game where the PCs investigate a huge conspiracy).

Another highlight of this book for me is that it has a section titled Advice to Players, which is a subject often neglected in tabletop RPGs.  This is fully outside of the character building and rules chapters.  It's meta-game advice that gets players thinking about the game's play style and what's expected of them to keep the game moving.  A lot of it is specific to what's expected of PCs in an investigative game, how to respond if you're "stuck," and how to manage the game's pacing.  I love transparency in games, and explicit meta-game advice is a great way to let everyone know how the game was designed to be played (that's not meant to imply it's restrictive; knowing why something is designed the way it is makes it much easier to house-rule things to better suit your specific group).

While I have no idea when I'll have time to actually play this game, I'd say it was a good purchase.  It fills a niche that can't easily be replicated by any other game that I own, and has enough unique pieces of game design that it proved an interesting read independent of whether or not I'll be playing it in the near future.

No comments:

Post a Comment