Jason Bourne vs. Dracula
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Well, what the hell, time to throw my hat into this ring. It's time for....
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Part 1: Jason Bourne Versus Dracula
Night's Black Agents
is an espionage thriller game which, as the banner on its website is very keen to tell you, was written by ENnie Award winner Kenneth Hite. Ken is perhaps best-known for his Lovecraft-related works--in fact, this is his second game using Robin D. Laws' GUMSHOE System, after 2008's
Trail of Cthulhu.
Night's Black Agents
takes the action from the Mythos-infested 1930s to the seamy criminal underworld of present-day Europe. It's a world of organized crime, of burned ex-intelligence agents and of vampires.
Yeah, that's right. Vampires. And no, not the metaphorical kind. The secretive, blood-drinking, secret-masters-of-a-vast-conspiracy, really-don't-like-it-when-ex-spies-poke-into-their-business kind. You poked your nose into their business, and now you know they're out there. Oh, and they know you know.
One note before we begin: General Ironicus is already doing a great job writing up
, which also uses the GUMSHOE System, so I'm going to try not to get too redundant with his review. As such, while I still plan to go chapter-by-chapter through the game, I'm mostly going to focus on the differences between
Night's Black Agents
and other GUMSHOE games. I'm also going to be aiming for major audience participation, if there's enough interest: we'll be doing examples of character creation, vampire creation, and conspiracy mapping all driven by goon consensus.
Now, let's go dark, shall we?
Silly vampire, you say grace
The book kicks off with a section called
, where Hite lays out the basics of the game. The GM role is called the Director, and it's her job to design both the vampiric conspiracy the players' agents will be going up against and the vampires themselves. That's right, rather than giving us a canned style of vampire story,
Night's Black Agents
has a robust system for designing your own vampires, from corpse-eating ghouls straight out of Balkan folklore to classic Dracula flavor to
-style alien parasites. We'll get to all that a bit later on. We also get a quick run-down of the "stock" campaign arc:
Night's Black Agents: Introduction posted:
Throughout a typical Night’s Black Agents campaign, the agents:
Uncover the extent of the vampire conspiracy, mapping its branches and personnel.
Survive attacks by the vampires or their minions and pawns
Discover the vampires’ weaknesses and true nature
Detect and prevent ongoing and ad hoc vampire or conspiratorial operations
Weaken the vampire conspiracy by striking at its main branches or key personnel
Finally, destroy the vampires at the heart of the conspiracy
Skipping over the stock "the story happens at the table, not in the Director's notes" and "what's in this book" sections, the Introduction ends with a discussion of the four gameplay
Night's Black Agents
defaults to "spy action thriller," but much like
Trail of Cthulhu
before it, provides four different levers to fine-tune the experience to what you want. Each of the four modes has an icon associated with it; throughout the text, rules designed for that mode are called out with that icon. For this review, I'll be following that same convention. The four modes are:
Burn mode focuses on the psychological toll all the lies and violence and self-deception inflict. Here, isolation and despair are every bit as dangerous as ex-KGB wetworkers or ninth-dimensional bloodsucking parasites. Sources of inspiration include the Bourne movies, TV shows like
, or the novels of Graham Greene.
In Burn mode games, agents' Stability ratings are capped at 12 and more things can cause Stability loss. No, we don't exactly know what that means yet. Also, the likelihood of someone quoting Nietzsche goes up by 15% per session.
Dust mode drops the game's action from cinematic hyper-reality to something grittier and more "realistic." Because in a game where vampires secretly control the Afghani heroin trade, being able to shoot two guns at the same time is just implausible. Inspiration here are more grounded espionage TV series like
, films like
Three Days of the Condor
, or the novels of Anthony Price and Charles McCarry.
In Dust mode games, agents' Health is capped at 10, you don't get to pick an MOS, and most if not all of the cherries you get for having a rating of 8+ in General abilities. You can also restrict or outright eliminate the Thriller combat rules. Since we haven't really been told what any of that means yet, we're forced to assume that DARPA has weaponized Michael Jackson's dance moves.
Mirror mode is all about paranoia. Everybody has a hidden agenda, most of which are themselves in service to an even
agenda, and trusting the wrong person nets you a shallow grave in the foothills of the Caucasus.
Everyone is the wrong person.
Inspiration is, unsurprisingly, extensive: John Le Carré’s George Smiley novels, classic spy movies like
, even the
films fit here. Most Mirror mode games incorporate at least one additional mode, sometimes more than one. Le Carré’s work tends to be a combination of Mirror and Dust, while
combines Mirror and Burn Modes (with a little bit of Stakes, which we'll get to next).
In Mirror mode games, your contacts are more likely to turn on you when you least expect it, and you can never even be sure of the loyalty of your own teammates. To that end, Mirror mode uses a fairly straightforward but potentially nasty mechanic for Trust and Betrayal, which will come up later in the rules.
Stakes mode is a little bit of an odd duck--mostly, it's described as being for games where the stakes are higher than mere survival, in the vein of Bond films or Clancy novels, but the only rule that gets called out for Stakes mode here is that agents in Stakes mode have Drives which motivate them--but in the very next sentence, it says Drives should be used regardless of mode, so...
Stakes mode gets a few callouts later in the rules, mainly focused on how things work if your characters are still actively working for larger intelligence agencies rather than being free agents.
And that's it for the Introduction. Next up will be the Characters chapter, where we'll learn exactly how much parkour we need to outrun a bat. We'll also design a cell of vampire-slaying burned-out ex-spies to showcase the rules, and that means it's
audience participation time
! Submit your ideas for spies you'd like to see punch a Dracula in the face, and I'll pick between three and five of them to build out as player characters. You can
vote for which, if any, modes you'd like to see used for the audience participation segments. (If you want to vote for a vanilla, unmodified game, vote for "thriller.")
Euphemisms for Bad People
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Part 2: Euphemisms for Bad People
Now that we've got the basics of the game's premise and the overviews of the various Modes, it's time to dive headlong into Chapter 2: Characters. Rather helpfully, this chapter serves as both the character creation rules and the descriptions of all the various abilities and other fiddly bits that go on the character sheet. It minimizes the amount of flipping back and forth during character creation, which new players will surely appreciate.
For this write-up, we'll be ably assisted by the following characters who we'll be building out at the end of each section:
, a 60-year-old ex-KYP (Greek National Intelligence Service) officer haunted by his role in the Athens Polytechnic Uprising of 1973. Unlike most starting characters in
Night's Black Agents
, he's familiar with vampires, having discovered that the Regime of the Colonels that ruled Greece from 1967-1974 had vampiric backing.
, a former member of the Continuity Irish Republican Army, expelled from the group in one of its many internal splits during the past decade. Maddigan knows his way around a bomb and a gun, but his particular talent lies more in acquiring them than using them.
, late of the Lebanese GDGS (General Directorate of General Security). Left the Directorate under unknown circumstances shortly after the 2005 assassination of Rafic Hariri. Infiltration and surveillance expert with a rather disturbing fondness for knives.
, self-described "former NSA SIGINT ninja." In point of fact she's never worked for any intelligence or clandestine agency at all; she learned all her tradecraft from old James Bond movies and reruns of
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Favored tactics include hacking vampires' computer networks, filling them with kiddie porn, and calling the FBI. Then leaking their names and addresses to the Internet, "for the lulz."
, the best CIA Agent that those honkies from the CIA ever had. Gave it all up to hunt blaculas that prey on orphans.
Votes for Modes were pretty sparse, so I'm going to go with the ones that show off the most optional rules in this chapter:
Let's begin, shall we?
Chapter 2: Characters
Creating a character in
Night's Black Agents
is a four-step process:
Choose your Investigative abilities
Choose your General abilities
Build out your personality and dossier
Since we're all badass secret agents, we start play with a few points in some abilities for free. All agents get the following for free:
1 rank of Streetwise (Investigative)
1 rank of Tradecraft (Investigative)
4 ranks of Health and Stability (both General)
10 ranks of Cover (General)
15 ranks of Network* (General)
* Burn mode games start you with fewer free Network points; we'll talk about that more in the General abilities section.
You get a variable number of Investigative abilities depending on the number of players in your group--the fewer players, he more points you get to spend. Players who can only show up occasionally get the same allotment of points as "regulars," but don't count toward the number of players. So, for example, if you have five players but two can only make it every now and then, everybody gets Investigative ability points as though you had a three-person group (24, if you were wondering).
General abilities are fixed: each player gets 70 points to spend on General abilities.
In Dust mode games, players only get 55 General ability points.
One final note, and one of the things I've always liked about GUMSHOE games. Any time you're told to choose something at character creation, you
have the option of leaving it blank for now and filling it in during play. This goes for ability point spends, specialties in certain abilities, Drives, sources of Stability (q.v.), etc. In keeping with the spy thriller genre, these fill-ins represent a skill or personality trait you've had all along, but chose not to reveal before now.
Backgrounds are packages of 6 Investigative and 18 General skill ranks that represent what you did for your agency (or paramilitary group, or terrorist network, or what have you) before you became a vampire-hunting free agent. As the book goes out of its way to tell us several times, Backgrounds do not give you any kind of "package deal" discount or special abilities. They're literally just pre-configured selections of skills. You're free to ignore them entirely and pick your skills from scratch, or you can choose as many as you can afford.* You can even pick the same background multiple times.
In a nice character-building touch, each Background includes 5-6 suggestions for what Agency you might have worked for and in what capacity. They're by no means exhaustive, and the whole section is biased toward a half-dozen or so countries' intelligence services, but they're still good starting points if you don't have a fixed idea for your character just yet.
Seen here, an agent selecting the "Kristen Bell" Background.
The Backgrounds are:
Your job was to sift through vast amounts of data to find the meaningful patterns.
You ran a lot of HUMINT (Human Intelligence) sources--snitches, moles, and dupes who reported to you on the activities of various undesirables. Weirdly, this Background doesn't actually give you any additional points in Network, which is the ability that measures said HUMINT assets.
You were James Bond's accountant. Just what every little kid dreamed of.
If it needed to be blowed up real good, you were the one they called. Sometimes they called you when something already done blowed up good and they needed you to figure out who done did it.
You were a breaking-and-entering specialist. Since spy-time breaking and entering is usually done for the purpose of swiping important documents or planting bugs, this Background pairs well with Analyst or Wire Rat.
When other spies botched the job and left evidence behind, you were the one they called in to fix the mess. Sometimes that meant wiping down fingerprints or blanking surveillance tapes, other times it meant dumping some poor dead bastard in an acid bath.
You "made the shoes," which in spy lingo means falsified passports, visas, and other documentation.
Master of social infiltration, your job was to get close to your target for the long con. Pairs well with Asset Handler.
Exactly what it sounds like. Depending on whether you're the "stay back in the van" type or the "break in to access the network directly from the server room" type, you might pair this Background with Analyst, Black Bagger, or even Wire Rat.
Basically all the protagonist types of other GUMSHOE games boiled down into one Background. These guys usually belonged to a division with "counter-" somewhere in the name--counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, etc.
More than just the trusty sawbones, your job involved analyzing and preparing for biowarfare attacks, chemical forensics, and the like. Oh, and sometimes you were the creepy guy in the lab coat that administered the truth serum.
Your job was getting things across borders that the owners of those borders would probably prefer didn't cross the border. Borders borders borders.
Sidebar Madness! posted:
Here we get a short sidebar reminding us that, since Backgrounds don't offer any discounts or special abilities, you can totally make up your own. Which really just amounts to "pick your skills freely," so... yeah, not sure we needed this sidebar since it's already been established that Backgrounds are optional. It then gives a couple of examples--see if you can spot the references!
Brainwashed Black Program Badass
Hot Vampire Slayer
MI6 Agent With License To Kill
Off-Duty Cop On the Coast
You know the big scary guy who looms menacingly in the background? That was you.
Your job was
training the Slayer
surveillance. Electronic, personal, whatever--if your agency needed to know where somebody was or what they were doing, you were the person they brought in.
You were a professional murderer. Maybe you worked for one of those organizations that's allowed to execute people, or maybe you were a plausibly deniable cutout for one that isn't.
"Hello Agent 47. Your target today is
a goddamn Dracula.
When an operation goes south, sometimes you need somebody to get you the hell out of Dodge in a big damn hurry. That was you. Scorpion jacket not included.
Where the Hacker is all about software, the Wire Rat is about hardware. Whether it's HD cameras the size of a tie tack or a briefcase that shoots .223 rounds, the Wire Rat has you covered.
After noting down their free starting abilities, our hypothetical players select their Backgrounds. In a five player game, each character gets 20 Investigative ability points--since every Background costs 6 Investigative ability points, that effectively means our characters can have a maximum of three Backgrounds.
Thaddaios was an informer during the Regime of the Colonels--He specialized in getting close to radical and anti-government groups, earning their trust, and rolling them up. More than that, he was remarkably good at finding the exact right leverage to convince naive, idealistic students to rat out their fellow subversives--basically he was the bad guy in a 1970s Athens game of Misspent Youth. He grabs Cuckoo and Asset Handler as Backgrounds, opting to leave a bunch of points open for later rather than take a third Background now. That gives him the following abilities so far:
Bullshit Detector 2, Flattery 2, Human Terrain 2*, Intimidation 2, Negotiation 1, Reassurance 3, Streetwise 1, Tradecraft 1
Cover 16, Disguise 8, Filch 2, Gambling 3, Health 4, Network 4**, Sense Trouble 7, Shrink 4, Stability 4, Surveillance 6
* This is an example of something we didn't talk about before--each Background includes a couple of Alternates for its Investigative abilities to let you fine-tune your character. In this case, Cuckoo normally gives High Society 2, but since Thaddaios focused more on student groups and grassroots campaigns, he swaps it out for Human Terrain 2.
** Remember how I said you get fewer Network points in Burn mode? It's a
As an ex-IRA thug, Brendan goes for three pretty straightforward backgrounds: Bang-and-Burner and Wet Worker cover the nastier side of his work, while Mule lets him get the guns and bombs wherever they need to go.
Architecture 2, Bureaucracy 1, Chemistry 2, Criminology 1, Forgery 1, Intimidation 3, Negotiation 2, Streetwise 4, Tradecraft 1, Urban Survival 3
Conceal 12, Cover 10, Driving 4, Explosive Devices 8, Hand-to-Hand 4, Health 4, Infiltration 2, Mechanics 4, Network 4, Pilot 2, Shooting 10, Stability 4, Surveillance 8
Semeeah, being a terrifying poker-faced wraith with a big goddamn knife, decides to follow the book's advice and pair Black Bagger with Wire Rat.
Chemistry 1, Data Recovery 3, Electronic Surveillance 4, Notice 1, Photography 2, Streetwise 2, Tradecraft 1
Conceal 5, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 4, Filch 6, Health 4, Infiltration 10, Mechanics 6, Network 4, Preparedness 5, Stability 4
Corinne feels like keeping her options as open as possible. She takes Hacker and nothing else; she'll free-spend most of her points in the next two steps.
Cryptography 1*, Data Recovery 2, Electronic Surveillance 2, Traffic Analysis 1, Urban Survival 1
Digital Intrusion 10, Disguise 2, Infiltration 2, Mechanics 4
* This rank is a free gift from Corinne's 10 points of Digital Intrusion. We'll talk more about these cherries two updates from now.
Pamela chooses Muscle three times.
Interrogation 3, Intimidation 3, Military Science 6, Streetwise 1, Tradecraft 1, Urban Survival 6
Athletics 18, Cover 10 Hand-to-Hand 24, Health 4, Network 4, Stability 4, Weapons 12
Next Time: Investigative Abilities or, the Pursuit and Study of the Common Blackula.
How to Recognize Different Types of Draculas From Quite a Long Ways Away
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My desktop rig is finally back on-line after the big move, so it's time for more...
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Part 2: How to Recognize Different Types of Draculas From Quite a Long Ways Away
Delving into our first chunk of actual, factual game mechanics, it's time to start talking about abilities. As you may have read in the
write-up, GUMSHOE divides abilities into Investigative abilities, which are never rolled and thus never fail, and General abilities, which are rolled and therefore can fail. Today, we'll be talking about the former category.
Investigative abilities are the key plot-driving mechanism in GUMSHOE games. You never have to roll them--instead, if you declare you're using an Investigative ability and there's a relevant clue to be found, you find it. Easy peasy. These abilities still have ranks, though, which you can spend to get additional information, or more likely other benefits. We'll talk more about why in the next chapter, but
Night's Black Agents
gives more attention to using Investigative spends being used to gain yourself a concrete tactical advantage rather than the ancillary clues a lot of other GUMSHOE games emphasize.
Assigning these abilities during character creation is a two-step process: first, the Director reads down the list of Investigative abilities and makes sure at least one PC has at least one rank in each. Then the players get to spend the rest of their build points as they like. Again, the book reminds you that you can save these points and assign them during the game for those "why, of course I'm an expert on rare-earth metals" moments. We're also told you can spend these points on
Tag-Team Tactical Benefits
, which we'll learn about on p. 110. We also get an optional rule for trading build points between players at a rate of 1 Investigative build point to 3 General build points (or vice versa). A nice option if you've got, say, one player who wants to play a super-genius analyst who's useless in the field and another who wants to play Brock Samson. It's generally not a good idea to let people trade in their free Cover and Network points under this scheme, though, because those abilities are hugely useful to everybody. Even Brock Samson needs to be able to call a guy who can hook him up with knives and muscle cars in a strange foreign land.
Before we get into the abilities themselves, we get a short sidebar on which investigative abilities are important (all of them, but it's more important that the whole group has coverage in every ability) and how many points you should put in them (generally, even 1 point represents a serious professional, with 2-3 points representing one of the top people on the planet). A couple of Investigative abilities have additional effects based on number of ranks; those you might want to buy more in, but generally 3 ranks is more than enough investment in any one ability. I
like this sidebar, and more games, especially ones with point-buy character generation, should present their benchmarks in such a matter of fact way.
Now, the abilities themselves. There are 39 of these buggers, divided into three categories: Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical. The categories are just for players' benefit; there aren't any actual rules that reference them. Each ability gets a brief description and a list of the sorts of information it can uncover for you. I'm going to blitz through these fairly quickly so we can get to the General abilities, where things will start to diverge more, rules-wise, from
. You'll note that there is no ability that explicitly covers lying--like any good spy, you're assumed to be lying your ass off 90% of the time, and GUMSHOE in general cares more about the approach you take than it does about whether you're lying or not.
The abilities are:
Following the money, wherever it goes.
a competent, responsible student of ancient cultures, architecture, etc.
This is a really weird skill to include unless your game features vampires from outer space. It kind of feels like a holdover from
Trail of Cthulhu
that was missed in an editing pass and
Stuff you can do with Astronomy posted:
calculate flight paths for ballistic missiles or rockets
Oh I see. Carry on,
Night's Black Agents.
Bullshit Detector (Interpersonal):
The ability to tell when somebody's lying. Also, as previously established, the best skill name in any RPG ever.
Wringing some measure of efficiency and service out of governments, large corporations, dread churches of blasphemous gods, and that sort of thing. Contains this delightful passage:
Bureaucracy is not a catch-all information gathering ability. Bureaucrats wish to convey the impression that they are busy and harried, whether or not they actually are. Most take a profound, secret joy in directing inquiries elsewhere. When characters attempt to use Bureaucracy to gain information more easily accessible via other abilities (such as Research), their contacts simply lose the request and go to lunch early.
Yeah. If you want somebody that will stick their neck out for you, that's a use of Network.
On a scale of 0 to 3, how much Walter White are you?
Cop Talk (Interpersonal):
Get the fuzz to like you. Has nothing to do with knowing anything about criminal investigation or even basic deductive reasoning. But you can talk to cops like a champ.
Your ability to successfully be the lead of your own
Law & Order
Code-making and code-breaking. So specific it doesn't even get a bulleted list. Probably still pretty useful.
Data Recovery (Technical):
Pulling useful electronic data, be it from a trashed hard drive, a real-time satellite feed, etc. Also contains my single favorite "stuff you can do" in the entire game:
"Stuff You Can Do With Data Recovery posted:
miraculously find detailed, high-resolution images within a blurry video image or pixilated JPEG (Not
Figuring out that holy shit, that guy's got ebola. At 2+ ranks, you might be an actual doctor.
Electronic Surveillance (Technical):
Spy on people with digital gizmos, and also find other people's digital spying gizmos. For a modest spend, you can be Batman at the end of
The Dark Knight.
Not just your ass-kissing ability, but also your ability to size people up and identify areas of pride or personal shame. Required groundwork for all truly epic trolls.
No, it's not here for you to make a 3-point spend so your character can bang Scarlet Johansson, Jesus Steve, stop being a creepy fuck. Flirting lets you win cooperation from people who find you sexually attractive, size up someone's romantic tastes, and (my personal favorite) look at a group of people and figure out who's sleeping with who and who they
want to be sleeping with.
Forensic Pathology (Technical):
Like Diagnosis, but for dead people.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that some Investigative abilities have special rules depending on how many ranks you have in them? Forgery is the first one of those. You can take a crack at forging anything (and spotting counterfeits, of course) with sufficient spends, but in addition, for every point you have in Forgery, you get to pick one specific thing, like Serbian passports or blue-period Picassos. Your forgeries of those things are flawless, 100% undetectable as forgeries (although even a 100% perfect passport with no matching reference in an electronic database will get flagged pretty quickly). Also, counterfeiting: It's probably impossible, given the PCs' assumed resources and the technical requirements of printing money. In more cinematic games, it might be possible to counterfeit a few thousand dollars, euros, etc., but it will likely bring down more Heat (about which, more later).
High Society (Interpersonal):
The James Bond-like ability to get into all the best parties and look like you belong there.
You know about old stuff.
Human Terrain (Interpersonal):
Knowing your way around, not in terms of geography but in terms of culture, politics, religion, and other things most people would call "the human element."
Getting people to tell you things they might not want to tell you but that you want to know. To use Interrogation, you actually need to have the target in custody, or "in a situation evocative of constraint and punishment." So, tail your mark to a BDSM club, I guess.
Making people scared of what you can and will do to them.
Another special case skill. All agents start out speaking at least accented English and their native language. Each point spent in Languages gives you additional, cumulative languages. They add up fast: at 3 ranks, your character speaks nine languages, plus your native tongue and English. Polyglots ahoy! Ancient languages are okay too, but probably not any occult, secret, or otherworldly languages that might crop up. You can also spend one language slot on "lip reading," thereafter you can read lips in any language you speak.
Knowledge of legal procedure and precedent. At 2+ ranks, you are (or can impersonate) a bar-certified attorney.
Military Science (Academic):
The history, equipment, and best practices of dudes shooting other dudes in the face on a professional basis.
Wheeling and Dealing, Tom Haverford style.
The obligatory Spot skill.
Occult Studies (Academic):
You know about wizards 'n' shit. Even if your campaign includes magic outside the purview of weird vampire powers, this skill alone doesn't give you the know-how to cast spells. Also, depending on the tone of the game, this skill may be supplemented or wholly replaced by Fringe Science, for maximum Walter Bishop.
Occult Studies includes a detailed study of the Corpse Worm Fairy
Outdoor Survival (Technical):
Your Bear Gryllsitude.
Your ability to take useful pictures, video, etc. Also includes my second favorite "what you can do" in the book:
"Stuff You Can Do With Photography posted:
develop film if you’re, like, stuck in 1967 or something
Whoa, easy there buddy. This is all a big misunderstanding, so just put down the gun andKICKTOTHEFACE.
The catch-all "look shit up in a library/database/newspaper archive" ability.
Kind of like High Society, but on
Also a good skill to use when you want to buy an old Soviet nuclear warhead from a Bulgarian real estate mogul.
Cool Spy Tricks 101.
Traffic Analysis (Technical):
The ability to take a vast amount of data and sift through it for patterns or meaningful coincidences.
Urban Survival (Technical):
Is that dumpster hot dog still good? Also navigating a city without looking like a tourist, spotting tourists and other jackasses who stand out like sore thumbs, and general "I know this city like the back of my hand" type tricks. Incidentally, for every rank you have in Urban Survival, indicate one city that you really do know like the back of your hand.
Knowledge of vampires--including how to tell the real deal from psychopaths or Goth wannabes. Generally speaking, nobody will start with this skill, since the default assumption is that the agents learn of the existence of vampires during their first mission.
And that's it for Investigative abilities. This update has already gotten pretty long, and the next one is going to be about the same, so I think I'll hold the rest of the sample character creation till the last post on Chapter 1 and do the whole rest of the process in one go.
Interrogation Special Update
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OctaNe is indeed badass. Hmm... I had been leaning toward doing
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying
after I finished
Night's Black Agents
, but maybe I should do OctaNe instead.
Speaking of which....
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Part 3a: Interrogation Special Update
In the last update, I forgot to talk a little about the sidebar on what happens when PCs get interrogated. It's a pretty common trope in spy stories, and the game does a decent job of balancing that fact with the fact that this is a game and players don't generally like it when their characters are captured by fiat.
If the interrogation is subtle or informal (e.g. a covert operative trying to pump you for information at a bar), recognizing the attempt is just a use of an Interpersonal ability--Tradecraft, Bullshit Detector, or similar. From there it's your call what, if any, info to spill. In a more formal interrogation, be it a police lock-up or a Senate subcommittee, you can spend from a relevant ability to get out of the situation--Reassurance to assure the committee chair that no black-ops vampire hunting is going on without their knowledge, Cop Talk or Law to get you released for lack of evidence, etc. If there's really no way out of it (e.g. a Danish terrorism-banker is menacing your genitals with a length of knotted rope), we're squarely in the realm of plot device. We're reminded to read up on Getting Captured later in the book, and most of all reminded to only use these kinds of scenarios to drive the plot forward, not to revel in the PCs' helplessness. A good way to to do that is to use the interrogation as a ticking clock on any escape or rescue attempts--maybe for every Interrogation point the captured agent spends, she can hold out one more day (or one more scene); when she's out, she spills her guts. Or, maybe you just cut to the next morning and the agent being tossed out of a moving van, mysteriously released. Why is she still alive? And should she start checking her body for bite marks?
Part 4: Draculas Do Not Like Cherries
General abilities work quite a bit differently than Investigative ones. When you use a General ability, you roll 1d6 against a difficulty (usually 4). Before you roll, you can spend points from your relevant General ability's pool to add to your result on a 1-for-1 basis. In addition, a fair few of the Thriller Combat rules allow you to spend General ability points to unlock certain maneuvers and do cool shit in fight scenes. We're again reminded that we can save General build points to assign as needed during the game, and we're also told that if we have Shooting or Weapons at 8+, we can spend build points on "Special Weapons Training," which is described later. (Spoiler alert: It's 6 build points for +1 damage with one specific type of weapon.) We also get the same sidebar as in the previous section, laying out which General abilities are most important (all of them, but seriously, if you don't buy up Health, Stability, Athletics and at least one combat ability, you're probably going to die) and how many points you should put in them (a lot more than Investigative abilities: 1-3 points is a sideline, 4-7 is solid but not spectacular, and 8+ is into the realm of the dedicated badass).
Sometimes, General abilities can be used as Investigative ones--like, maybe you want to use Shooting to ID the weapon the Italian Foreign Minister was shot with by the sound of the report or use Explosive Devices to figure out who made a bomb. Other times, there's already an Investigative ability that does what you want, because GUMSHOE is all about multiple redundancies.
As mentioned before, you get 70 points to spend on General abilities (55 points in a Dust game, 65 in a Mirror game). There's no cap on these, but your second-highest ability has to be at least half your highest. Your free ranks in Cover and Network don't count. So, yeah, if you want to be a freakish kung fu master whose only skill is punching Draculas in the face, buy yourself 40 Hand-to-Hand, 20 Athletics, and spend your last 10 points on Health or whatever. The thing is (and this is something I wish the advice sidebar talked about a little more), given how often General ability pools refresh some or all of their points, having more than, say, a dozen or so points usually leads to diminishing returns. You're better off spreading your points a little bit, and one of the main reasons for that is cherries.
Cherries are one of the new rules elements introduced in
Night's Black Agents
, though they build off of a rule in previous GUMSHOE games that made you harder to hit in combat if your Athletics was 8 or higher. (The name is also borrowed from Unknown Armies, I believe.)
extends that to pretty much all General abilities: if your rating is 8 or higher, you get some extra special benefit called a "cherry." (Optional rule: if you want more niche protection, you can raise the bar for cherries to 12.) Cherries key off of your
in the ability, not how many points you currently have. Also, some abilities unlock special Thriller Combat options, which we'll be talking about in the next chapter.
In Dust mode games, only Cherries marked with the Dust icon exist.
So, the General abilities list:
General running/jumping/climbing trees bit.
At Athletics 8+, your Hit Threshold (the number bad guys have to roll to hit you) goes up by 1.
Hiding stuff. Not yourself. At 8+, you can hide a small object somewhere on your person. Short of an x-ray scan or a full-body strip search, it can never be found.
Cover is one of the special case General abilities. See, you never actually roll Cover directly. Instead, when you need a cover identity for yourself (maybe a Russian Air Force Colonel or an importer of Carpathian antiquities), you move points from your Cover pool into a special side pool for that specific identity. You then use
points on rolls when when you use your cover identity to do things like cross borders, get access to restricted areas, or establish your bona fides to that pale gentleman who wants to buy Dracula's cape. If a particular cover ever runs out of points, it's been red-flagged in a database somewhere and using it is likely to get you burned. Unlike other General abilities, cover points
refresh. Ever. You can spend XP to "backfill" a cover and give it more points, but once it's gone it's probably burned forever. Cover doesn't have a cherry.
Hacking. Why it's not just called Hacking I have no idea. Anyways, 8+ gives you a free point in Cryptography, and also lets you secure your team's communications against anything but intelligence agency-level hacking or interception. Weirdly, despite the fact that all the other "gain 1 point in an Investigative ability" cherries are tagged as Dust-allowed, this one is not.
The art of being as obnoxious as Dana Carvey in that movie where he looked like a turtle. At 8+ ranks, when you create a cover identity using Cover, you can declare that you know some NPC on a personal level "in character" as your new cover. (E.g. "Marko! It's me! Lieutenant Hobbes, from Liverpool! Remember?") No, I don't know what that has to do with Disguise ability either.
Covers any vehicle that doesn't fly or sail. For every point, you can drive one type of vehicle:
Night's Black Agents posted:
These include: motorcycle, transport truck, bus, construction equipment,
remote-control car or robot
, snowmobile, motorboat, and jet-ski.
Character concept found. Also, at 8+ you can spend 1 Driving point to automatically steal any civilian or standard police vehicle.
Things that make you go boom. At 8+ you can spend a few extra points to add dice of damage to explosives you set instead of adding to your roll.
At 8+, you can spend points
your roll, but at a 2-for-1 rate. This is one of the worst cherries in the game, IMO, since you'll almost always end up spending more points than you would have if you'd just said "damn the torpedoes" and spent enough points to guarantee a success in the first place.
For the obligatory scene where James Bond sits down for a hand of cards against the villain. In a nice touch, it specifies that in Dust games you can only use this ability when there's an actual element of player skill involved. In more cinematic modes, you can totally use this skill to win at roulette or baccarat. Gambling also gets one of the most fun cherries in the game: At the beginning of each session, roll a die and set it aside. At any time during the session, you can swap the result of a single die roll with that one. It doesn't even have to be a roll you made. You lucky bastard.
Punching Draculas in the mouth.
At 8+, you can spend 1 to assess how good at Hand-to-Hand another character is, relative to you.
Yep, your hit points are a skill in this game. Most of the time it only goes down due to damage, but sometimes you can push yourself by spending your own Health rating. No cherry on this one.
B&E for F&P. At 8+ ranks, you automatically bypass any normal, commercial door lock or alarm system, no roll required.
Building and fixing stuff. At 8+, you can spend Mechanics points on Preparedness rolls (q.v.), but you have to provide a clever
-esque explanation of how you're repurposing a common household doodad into what you need. This is another of my favorite cherries, just for the crazy shit players come up with.
Plugging holes in people.
8+ gets you a free rank in Diagnosis. Nice, but bland.
Network works pretty much exactly like Cover, but instead of pulling one of your own false identities out of your ass, you're ringing up an old contact that can do you a solid. Oh, and if a contact's pool ever hits 0, she's turned or killed by the opposition. Contacts are usually used to supply you with stuff: safe houses, black-market guns, suitcase nukes, etc. They can also get you out of prison, but when you spend points out of the contact's pool for a jailbreak, it costs double. Not discussed in the book but my own personal house rule: I'll usually give a contact an extra 1-3 points for free if the player narrates some sort of problem or complication introducing them (e.g. "Trust me, she's the best driver in Prague. Assuming we can sober her up." or "I know a guy who can get us the guns we need. Or he'll shoot me on sight. Call it 50-50 odds.") Like Cover, no cherries for Network, but we do get a nice little section on how Network can be used as an Investigative skill. It's incredibly versatile, since all you really need to do is figure out what information you need, come up with someone whose job it is to know that thing, and spend some Network points to make a contact out of that person. You can get a lot of versatility out of a very few points, especially if you're willing to let the vampires eat your contacts when you're done. Outside of spy fiction, John Constantine does this kind of shit
all the damn time.
In Mirror mode games, at the beginning of each session, the Director picks one contact that the agents have introduced (just one total, not one per agent) and rolls an unmodified die against that contact's current pool. If the die roll is higher, that contact is a filthy traitor. Maybe he always has been, maybe the vampires got to him recently and turned him, but that contact will betray the agent at the most inconvenient opportunity.
Literally exactly like Driving, but for boats and planes and UAVs instead of cars and trucks and RC cars. Even has the exact same cherry.
Hands down my favorite ability in GUMSHOE. Rather than worry about tracking all the equipment your spy is carrying, you're assumed to have any basic, obvious gear on-hand. If it seems a little edge-case or unusual, you make a Preparedness roll, with a difficulty based on how unlikely it is. Succeed, and you've got it. The way I explain it to new players is to imagine you're watching a Bourne movie. If Bourne pulls out a gizmo and you don't question where he got it, that's standard equipment. If it's the kind of thing you'd expect to see at least a quick shot of him packing along, it's a Preparedness test. If it's something you'd expect a full scene around him acquiring, it's probably something you need a Network or Streetwise spend to set up a buy.
At 8+, you can use Preparedness to retroactively prep
not just gear. You can, say, pre-rig a parking garage to explode or retroactively swap a briefcase full of state secrets for one full of Highlights magazines. Combine with a Network spend for the old classic "see that red dot on your chest? That's my buddy Sergei a half-mile away with a Dragunov. Wave to Sergei." trick.
Like Bullshit Detector, but for being shot in the face. At 8+, you can use your Sense Trouble rating to determine your place in initiative order instead of your combat ability.
Shh! My Brimley sense is tingling.
Guns guns guns. Weirdly, Shooting does not have a cherry. It's the only General ability outside the special case ones (Cover, Health, Network, and Stability) that doesn't. I have no idea why.
Being a psychotherapist. Austrian accent optional.
At 8+, you get a free point in Bullshit Detector, Flattery, Interrogation, or Reassurance.
Your mental hit points, aka how close to going batshit loco and/or becoming a vampire's meat puppet you are. No cherry, as per usual with the weird abilities.
Despite the name, this is largely the sneaking ability, though it also covers things like determining a target's daily routine or spotting your own tails.
At 8+, you get a free point in Electronic Surveillance. Because having two totally different surveillance abilities isn't confusing at all.
Killing things up close and personal with some technological assistance. At 8+, you can throw any reasonably well-balanced melee weapon without penalty at targets within Near range. In quite probably the most stilted reference in the entire game, this cherry is called
Quincey Morris' Bowie Knife.
That's the whole list, but we've got one more thing to do with General abilities. Each character picks one General ability to be your MOS ("Military Occupational Specialty," because that sounds cooler than "schtick.") Once per session, you can automatically and completely succeed on a single action using your MOS. You can, for example, automatically shoot and kill a human target, automatically win a car chase, or automatically infiltrate a building without detection. You can't automatically defeat a supernatural challenge with your MOS, but you can still auto-succeed on a single action (e.g. you automatically hit the vampire, but you have to roll damage). It's worth noting that not only does your MOS not have to be your best skill, it doesn't even have to be one you have any ranks in. So if you want to create a weedy little analyst who turns into a Swedish murder machine when someone calls him a chicken, you can do that.
There's also no discussion of what happens if you make one of the non-standard abilities your MOS. Health and Stability are rolled, albeit pretty rarely, but what happens when Cover or Network is your MOS?
I guess maybe once per session you automatically get what you want out of a contact or successfully use your cover to do whatever, but given the way pool attrition works with those abilities it seems a little too good. So, I don't know.
There's a pretty awesome anecdote from playtesting that showcases why Preparedness and MOS are such fun aspects of the game. It comes up much later in the book, but I'm going to share it here.
Night's Black Agents posted:
The first time I ran
Night’s Black Agents
, the team’s analyst sat carefully in a Cartagena hotel room across the street from where all the action was happening. Sitting with a spy scope, she reported on what she saw but steadfastly refused to join in on the action. I shrugged and carried on with the adventure, giving her multiple chances to leave her perch. When the vampiric drug lord fled the scene in a helicopter with a suitcase nuke, I knew the agents had failed and there was no way they could stop him. Then the analyst spoke up. “I’ve been waiting for this moment. I’m spending 6 Preparedness to open up the case by my feet and pull out a shoulder-launched rocket launcher. (clatter) I got a 10.”
My eyes bugged a little. “Okay, fair enough. You do have one.”
“Good. My MOS is in Shooting. I use it — no roll needed, right? — and I blow that SOB out of the sky.”
Really, the explosion was spectacular.
Next time: We take our spies to Psych 101.
Almost to the Interesting Bits
Original SA post
Okay, I've let this languish too long. It's time for another round of...
PDF on DriveThruRPG
Part 4: Almost to the Interesting Bits
We're almost out of character creation, which means we'll be getting to the cool stuff soon. The last thing we need to do for our characters is the "personality and dossier" section, where we find out what makes these people tick--and in
Night's Black Agents
, that boils down to Sources of Stability, Drive, Trust, and Legend.
Sources of Stability
They say everybody needs something to believe in, and that goes double for burned out Dracula-hunting ex-spies. Your Sources of Stability are the things that keep you from collapsing into a fit of PTSD every time you flip past a Hammer Horror marathon on late-night TV. They are incredibly precious, as they are the only thing that lets you refresh your Stability pool between operations--so if, say, you ended the last operation in a Georgian supermax prison, good luck with refreshing that Stability. On the other hand, if you draw on them too much, they might very well come to the attention of the opposition--and if the vampires decide to start undermining your Sources of Stability, you are in for a world of hurt. You get three Sources of Stability, each of which fulfills a different psychological role: Symbol, Solace, and Safety.
is just that: a symbol of someone or something you care about. It might be something universal like "the flag" or something deeply persona like "my dad's Medal of Honor." The important thing is that it's the Symbol itself that reaffirms your Stability. Once a session during an operation, you can take a few minutes of quiet contemplation with your Symbol to refresh a point of Stability. If your Symbol is lost or destroyed, you lose 1 point from your Stability
if you don't get it back by the end of the session. Obviously it's real hard to do this to some Symbols: if your Symbol is "a sunrise," for example, there's no way it's getting lost or destroyed (well,
not). On the other hand, it does limit when you can get that refresh....
In a Stakes game, you should tie your Symbol to your Drive. That's actually a really solid piece of advice in general, I don't know why it's called out explicitly for Stakes games.
If your Symbol is ever proven meaningless--your country is supporting the vampires, or your dad lied to get that Medal of Honor--you immediately lose
points from your Stability rating. Ouch.
is a person, the one person in the world you can go to for human contact, intimacy, and a release from the stress and pressures of your undercover life. For obvious reasons, then, this has to be an NPC--your fellow vampire hunters are too messed up in the same way you are to be useful Sources of Stability. Six hours of quiet, uninterrupted companionship with your Solace--whether that's spending the night with a lover, talking philosophy with your priest, or creepily watching your estranged daughter through the window--gets you back 2 Stability points, again once per session. If you can get a whole day of such interaction between missions, you refresh your entire Stability pool. On the other hand, if your Solace ever betrays you or leaves you, you lose two points of your Stability rating. If your Solace is turned by the enemy, on the other hand, you lose three.
is the place you flee to when the chips are down, when you need to hide out and lick your wounds and generally retreat from human society. Since it's a location, and therefore much easier to find/bug/destroy, going here is
risky, but when you do, it's a doozy. For starters, you can immediately refresh any three General ability pools. Any Preparedness checks you make there have the difficulty reduced by 2. If you manage to get there unobserved, you also refresh your whole Stability pool. Finally, if the place has a caretaker (like maybe your landlord or the old Scottish groundskeeper), you may, once in your life, activate them as a free Network contact with a pool of 6--however, you can never replenish their pool, either with XP or with Network points. Once they're spent, they're spent. And again, if your Safety is destroyed or lost to you, you lose 3 Stability rating points.
If one of your Sources of Stability is lost, never fear! As soon as you spend any XP toward buying more Stability rating points, you can pick a new Source of Stability of the same type.
The one exception is if your Symbol was proven to be false--you can never replace a Symbol you've lost faith in. Nothing even matters any more.
When you found out vampires were real, what made you decide to charge headlong into the night after them, rather than just curling up under the bed and hoping they didn't notice you? That's your Drive. It's typically a one or two word description of what motivates you: Altruism, maybe, or Patriotism, or just plain Nowhere Else To Go. They've only got one mechanical hook, really: If the Director thinks you're hunkering down and playing things too safe, he can assess a stress penalty that increases the cost of Investigative spends and the difficulty of General ability tests by 1. If he thinks you're really rocking your Drive, he can let you refresh 1 or 2 points from any General pool once per session. I'm not going to list out the Drives, because honestly they're not all that interesting.
We also get a brief sidebar on Personal Arcs that amounts to "tell the Narrator a subplot you'd like to do." It's sadly nowhere near as detailed and cool as the Personal Arc rules in
, but it's something at least.
One more subsystem, this time specifically for Mirror mode games. You pick one other agent your character trusts: that character gets 3 Trust on you. You pick another character you don't trust at all--they get 0 Trust. Then you can assign 1 Trust each to up to two other characters. In hardcore Mirror mode games, you pick these ratings in secret and reveal them all at the same time. In less extreme games, you just go around the table and you can change your answers when you see what other people pick.
Trust is basically a pool of Aid Another points. You spend the Trust you got from another agent to help that agent out on their actions. Trust builds and changes slowly: at the end of each operation (not session; an operation is "one adventure") you can shift one point of Trust from one agent to another, and you can buy one Trust for 1 XP, but those are the only ways Trust refreshes.
You can also turn Trust into Betrayal--spending Betrayal lets you levy a -3 penalty on a General test
totally shut down a use of an Investigative ability for a scene (e.g. by evidence-tampering, murdering witnesses, etc.) Once Betrayal is spent, it's gone forever.
Maps and Legends
This is your standard "fill-in-the-details" section. It advises leaving your background sketchy, both because it's very in-genre and because you want the freedom to be able to use those retroactive abilities like Network and Cover. One really nice touch in this section is an age breakdown, decade-by-decade, that gives suggestions for the kinds of military and covert ops your character might have been part of before getting out of the business. It covers characters in their 20s through their 50s, and like the Backgrounds, it's not comprehensive but a good launching point for your own research. Finally, we get a sidebar on how to handle the vampire reveal: most games start with the vampires' existence coming out in the first operation (indeed, that's how the sample adventure in the back of the book starts). In others you might want to start in medias res--maybe discovery of the vampires is what led all the characters to leave their old agencies and join up. Or, especially in Mirror games, you might start with one or two characters in the know about vampires and the rest of the group in the dark.
And that's Character Creation! Next up we'll dive into the Thriller rules
Night's Black Agents
adds to the GUMSHOE system. We'll also hopefully get some more art to break up the text.