Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 30 November 2012

Kiss Kiss Fang Fang

Imagine if you were a former spy or intelligence officer or intelligence analyst, and you discovered a fundamental truth about the world. A truth that revealed just who was in charge of the world and might just have been in charge of the world for centuries or more… Not just mere humans of the New World Order or the Prieuré de Sion, but vampires! What if these vampires were really in charge of your former agency? Or the government? Or an international bank? Or all three? What would you do? This is the set up for Night’s Black Agents, the latest RPG to be written by Ken Hite using the GUMSHOE System, an RPG that the author pitches as “The Bourne Identity meets Dracula” or a “Vampire Spy Thriller.”

Published by Pelgrane Press, Night’s Black Agents, brings together the genres of espionage and horror in the post-Cold War period of the here and now, not in a singular blend, but as an assortment of ingredients from which the Game Master or Director, creates two dishes, tempering or sharpening them with certain flavours before intentionally colliding the two together. In other words, Night’s Black Agents is essentially a pair of toolkits, one to create the desired type of espionage, the other the desired type of vampire, backed up with the means to run the two against each other. The default setting is the “vampire spy thriller,” one of horror and shadows combined with bursts of action interspersed with the methodical processes of the espionage story. The toolkit allows the GM to model his campaign so that he can emphasise the psychological impact of being a spy, such as in Alias or Callan; the gritty, almost mundane feel of espionage as in Rubicon or The Sandbaggers; the genre’s “wilderness of mirrors” world of shifting allegiances and hidden agendas as exemplified by the best of John Le Carré’s fiction; and the high stakes patriotism of the novels of both Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming. Each of these models is a Mode, respectively Burn, Dust, Mirror, and (High) Stakes Mode, and there are indicators throughout the pages of Night’s Black Agents that point out where one rule works for one Mode and not for another.

So for example, in a Mirror Mode game, there is the possibility that one Contact per session will be flipped and work for the other side; players can choose to keep their agents’ Drives secret from each other; the Director can implement the mechanics for Trust between the player character agents; and an agent’s funding and equipment is likely to come from clandestine sources. Whereas, for a game in the Dust Mode, the players have fewer General Abilities (these being the more physical aspects and skills of an agent); no Military Occupational Speciality or MOS; cannot miraculously find high-resolution images within blurry video or pictures when using the Data Recovery Interpersonal Skill; when falling, it is not possible for a player to use either his Athletics or Hand-to-Hand ratings (if they are high enough) to ease a fall by bouncing between walls; and of course, gun fights can be lethal. These are not the only options to help a Director run a Night’s Black Agents campaign in either the Mirror or Dust Modes, but for the most part, the options and suggestions given throughout the book are all about “dialling down” the rules from its default of the “vampire spy thriller.”

Character creation adheres to the GUMSHOE System rules, with players assigning two pools of points to two types of Abilities. The smaller number of points is assigned to an agent’s Investigative Abilities, which are used to gather clues; the larger number to his General Abilities, which represent his physical skills. Apart from in Dust Mode, which does not use them, what an agent prior did to going solo or private, is represented by his MOS, his area of expertise. Several are listed, from Analyst and Asset Handler to Wheel Artist and Wire Rat. Primarily each MOS lists the minimum Investigative and General Abilities required to have carried it out as a job, but it also gives the possible positions with various agencies. So for example, an agent with the “Bang-and-Burner” MOS could have been an IRA bomb builder or a Special Branch bomb disposal expert whereas an agent with the Wheel Artist MOS could have been a Union Corse car thief, a DGSE “Action Division” driver, a Deutsche Bank-provided chauffer, and so on.  Besides assigning points to his character’s Abilities and choosing his MOS, a player needs to define more of his character’s Background, his Sources of Stability (these help keep an agent grounded when he is under stress or threatened, but can be undermined or subverted), and how he fits into the team that the player agents will form.

The sample player character agent is an ex-Stasi surveillance officer, an expert watcher turned investigator who has been unable to quite find a place in the world following the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the unification of Germany. Initially he worked as a contractor for governments in the old Eastern Bloc and the Caribbean, and then for corporations in the old Eastern Bloc, but he prefers to work for the government agencies rather than corporations. Conversely, he prefers to work for corporations in the West as their motives are purer. He is a grey haired bespectacled man who has the appearance of a bureaucrat who is perhaps a little worn down. (The agent has been designed for a Mirror Mode game with twenty-two points to be assigned to his Investigative Abilities for a four-player agent team.) 

Anton Wendell
Age: 53
Nationality: German
Agency: Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS); Stasi
MOS: Investigator/Watcher
Sources of Stability: Wife’s confirmation medal (Symbol); his mentor, Hans Urner (Solace); the island of Rügen (Safety)
Drive: Nowhere else to go. 

Investigative Abilities
Academic: Architecture 1, Art History 1, Human Terrain 1, Languages 2, Law 1
Interpersonal: Bullshit Detector 1, Bureaucracy 1, Cop Talk 1, Flattery 1, Interrogation 1, Negotiation 1, Streetwise 1, Tradecraft 2
Technical: Electronic Surveillance 3, Notice 3, Photography 2, Urban Survival 1
General Abilities 
Athletics 3, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 3, Disguise 4, Driving 4, Hand-to-Hand 6, Health 8, Infiltration 8, Network 15, Piloting 1, Sense Trouble 8, Shooting 2, Shrink 2, Stability 8, Surveillance 12
Languages: German (native); English, Russian, lip reading, ASL, Spanish

Mechanically, Night’s Black Agents uses the GUMSHOE System and therefore deviates little from the previous titles that Pelgrane Press has published – Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, and so on. This has the ratings in Investigative Abilities being spent to gain extra clues during the course of an adventure or investigation – if an agent has a rating in any one Investigative Ability, then he can always gain the base clues related to that Ability, whereas the ratings from General Abilities are spent to modify dice rolls. The focus of the rules is of course on espionage and so cover chases, combat, the dangers of the espionage world (plus the dangers of an espionage world in which there are vampires), heat (that is, gaining too much attention), and spytech. Night’s Black Agents being a “Vampire Spy Thriller,” it turns up the chase and combat mechanics with the Thriller Chase and Thriller Combat rules, the former being accompanied lists of locations and potential obstacles to overcome and make the player agents look cool, whilst the latter cover just about every form of cinematic gun-fu short of the modern Wuxia genre.

One new aspect of the GUMSHOE System in Night’s Black Agents is specifically aimed at the Thriller aspect of the game – “Cherries.” If an agent has a General Ability with a rating of eight or more, he is regarded as being skilled enough to gain a special benefit. In the case of Thriller Combat, it allows an agent to conduct extra attacks, sniping attacks, purchase Special Weapons Training, and so on. Every General Ability comes with a Cherry, the benefits varying from an extra skill rating, such as the bonus from Digital Intrusion granting a point in the Cryptography Investigative Ability, to simple cool things that an agent can do, such as the “Open Sesame” aspect of the Infiltration Ability that enables an agent to bypass simple locks. Perhaps one of the coolest Cherries is the “Technothriller Monologue” for the Shooting Ability, which grants an agent a refresh to his Shooting Ability if he can narrate how he uses his guns in true Clancy-esque style. Rounding the espionage-themed first half of Night’s Black Agents is a pair of sections, one on advice for agents and the other on advice for players, covering tactical skill use and essentially how to play the game. Whilst both sections are excellent, the second shorter section is pleasingly upfront in suggesting how to play in order to get the most out of the game.

The remaining half of Night’s Black Agents is for the Director’s eyes only, presenting a set of toolkits with which to build the game’s inhuman threats, their conspiracies, their territories, and the stories that will be told through play. The first of the toolkits is all about building the required type of vampire. Instead of campaign Modes, the Director builds his vampires around one of four Parameters – Alien, Damned, Mutant, or Supernatural. Beginning with their origins and means of spreading, the Director decides everything about his vampires – their numbers, their source of food, the cure to their vampirism, their powers, and their weaknesses. If a Director does not want to design a vampire for his campaign, he can choose any one of the off-the-shelf designs included, such as the “Linea Dracula Vampire,” descended from Vlad the Impaler, or the non-Euclidean silicon-based aliens that have imprinted on human DNA. Besides these, the author draws from various real world mythologies to extend the book’s vampiric menagerie, from the Adzeh, the insect-demon of Ghana to the humble zombie. Suggestions are given so that the Director can customise these threats so that they can be reused or tweaked enough to be unrecognisable to the players. Of course, just as there is nothing to stop a Director from creating his own original vampire threat, there is nothing to stop a Director from adapting a vampire from another source, whether that is from a film (the obvious joke here being, “No sparkles”), a book, or another RPG.

The focus of play in Night’s Black Agents is bringing down the conspiracy that the vampires have constructed around themselves. To help the Director construct this conspiracy, he builds into a pyramid structure called a “Conspyramid,” its base containing the outer edges of the conspiracy with the very heart of it – the vampire leaders of the conspiracy – sitting atop both the structure and the organisation. The resulting “Conspyramid” contains a number of nodes, each a part of the conspiracy and serving as a certain function within it, with the bulk of the nodes at its base or outer limits. Between the nodes the Director builds connections and lays clues, in the process constructing a story map for the campaign. As a structure, this story map remains open enough that the Director can improvise and revise the nodes and their connections as the player agents begin to dismantle the “Conspyramid” and make deductions of their own. (The Director also has a corresponding “Vampyramid,” which details and tracks the possible response of the conspiracy against the agents’ actions.)

Night’s Black Agents’ focus on constructing and bringing down the conspiracy needs a stage and it provides a means to create this with a relative minimum amount of preparation. The game being one of post-Cold War espionage, naturally this setting is Europe and spies invariably having natural home in the urban environment, the setting is actually the cities of Europe. The means to create what will become the backdrop for the Director’s campaign can be as complex or as simple as the Director wants, but the author suggests a quick and dirty method involving a little research combined with determining the aims and activities of the conspiracy within the city before coming up with three hooks to pull the player agents in. The alternative “Low and Slow” method results in a more detailed city better suited to extended play and exploration. Sample cities created by both means are included, and like the sample “Vampyramid,” can easily be used as part of a campaign.

Besides a top secret appendix full of useful forms, the Director receives a scenario with which to kick off a campaign and some excellent advice. The scenario, “(S)entries,” can also be run as part of an on-going campaign, but either way, it requires some preparation upon the Director’s part. The advice for the Director is much more straightforward and concise, helpfully guiding him through the possibilities and perils of running a Night’s Black Agents campaign – the potential for an investigation to become a railroad, be prepared for the players to really use the Preparedness General Ability a lot, constructing the typical Thriller spine for an operation, letting the players contribute to keeping the campaign “cool,” and so on.

Physically, Night’s Black Agents is a well-designed book. The contents are not only well organised, but also colour-coded so as give each section its own identity. Done in full colour throughout, the artwork is never less than atmospheric. The writing is taut and never less than informed with the author’s appreciation of both genres constantly on show. A nice touch is that he even goes so far as to provide his own DVD-style commentary on various aspects of the game and the genres it is emulating and combining, allowing his voice to come to the fore.

There is so much in Night’s Black Agents that can be pulled out and used elsewhere. The Conspyramid structure can be used in any RPG with a conspiracy game, both to map out its conspiracy and thus its story structure; its city preparation guidelines to create interesting locales for any urban set RPG; and of course, the espionage rules with almost any GUMSHOE System RPG. Indeed, Night’s Black Agents already suggests how the latter can be done – presenting alternative ways of using its material. Most obviously as a straight espionage RPG sans the horror, but in gaming terms even more obviously by combining it with the source material from Trail of Cthulhu to do something along the lines of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels. Of course, the Laundry Files RPG already does this, but this suggestion continues to use the GUMSHOE System mechanics. The other suggestion pushes Night’s Black Agents in the direction of Brian Lumley’s Necrosope novels. Similarly, the GUMSHOE System has horror source material aplenty if the Director wants his agents to come up against foes other than vampires.

Of course, there is nothing to stop a Director from taking the more off-the-shelf elements of Night’s Black Agents – stick with the default “Vampire Spy Thriller” setting and its high octane rules, pick one of the sample vampires as his campaign’s antagonists, use the sample cities as his campaign backdrop, and start play using the included scenario. He essentially everything necessary to play, and that would be just fine. Yet in doing so, the Director would be ignoring the one thing that would really make Night’s Black Agents his game, and that is its toolkit aspect and the ability to tinker with just about every element of the game, the rules, the setting, and the campaign. Above all, this toolkit aspect means that not only is no Director’s game is going to be the same as that of any other Director, it also means that every Director has the capacity to make Night’s Black Agents the game that both he and his players want…

As good as the toolkits that Night’s Black Agents provides are, the rules and advice deliver on the game and genre that they promise. Whether it is blood pumping action or heart stopping shocks, Night’s Black Agents is probably best shaken, and definitely has the “Vampire Spy Thriller” staked.

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