Once again, we’re going to branch out here at Angel’s Citadel and wander down what is, to us, an untrod path of discovery. This time, we’re going to look at the brainchild of gaming luminary Robin D. Laws. A man that has been in the industry forever, he wrote what is still one of the best articles on Game Mastering that exists: Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. His investigative roleplaying system, known as the GUMSHOE system, has been adapted into many different games under the umbrella of Pelgrane Press. Today, we’re going to discuss one such property: Night’s Black Agents, a Vampire Spy thriller developed by Kenneth Hite of White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade fame.
Production and Manufacturing
Of the PDFs that we own, and let me tell you, there are a stupidly large number of them, and unlike other tabletop roleplaying games that we’ve looked at thus far, Night’s Black Agents has a theme of three column texting with handy line breaks between each column to make it easier to read. Important information is highlighted and bolded as you’re reading and they use bullet points to great effect. The bookmarks are nice and fit the pages that they’re supposed to be on. The text is easily readable and not hard on the eyes while on the PC or a tablet. The artwork is very understated. This book has a single pair of splash pages with art that highlight the section on Vampires and that is it. All of the rest of the art is less than a full page and sparse at that. This lends some focus on the game rules and text, however the art that is there is still reasonably evocative.
Welcome to the darkness. In this game you play a spy of the likes of James Bond, Jason Bourne, Ronin, or shows like Alias or MI-5. Only instead of working for some shadowy government agency you discover you’re working for… Vampires? The Cold War? Over. The War on Terror? Over for you. (Page 6). You begin play as an Agent, one that has been trained by an agency over years. For whatever reason, you discover the existence of Vampires and, quite predictably, they control a whole bunch of the shadows you used to hide in. Now, you and your team have to decide how you’re going to deal with that kind of threat, because there’s just not enough room in this world for mundane, power-hungry bad guys AND supernatural, blood-sucking masterminds.
One of the most important factors to remember with this game is that what one GM may have in their world won’t necessarily be true in another GM’s world. Customizable and modular, the vampires and their conspiracies are built by the GM, hopefully to suit the group’s expectations. Much of the latter half of the book is a toolbox designed to help the GM put together a take on both clandestine operations and vampires that is unique enough to give their players pause and make them question if what they think they know is actually true.
The GUMSHOE system splits a typical “adventure” into two parts. Information gathering and Action. What is really unique about the system to me in comparison with other systems that I have looked at, however, is the way it deals with the first of these. Much like I discussed in the article I wrote a couple of months ago entitled Don’t Hide Your Plot Behind the Dice, the emphasis here is not on “finding” the information.
Gathering clues is simple. All you have to do is:
* Get yourself into a scene where relevant information can be gathered,Night’s Black Agents, page 44 (emphasis in text)
* have the right ability to discover the clue, and
* tell the Director that you’re using it.
As long as you do these three things, you will never fail to gain a piece of necessary information. It is never dependent on a die roll. If you ask for it, you will get it.
There is no randomness to finding things. You use logic and look and if your team has the right ability (which they should based on the character creation rules – your team should be able to be broad enough to cover most anything that you need for investigation) you get the information. There is no stalling or hang-up in the story due to not having the right key information. It’s a really fascinating way of looking at things, along the same lines as the interplay of the Engagement Roll and Flashbacks in Blades in the Dark.
In the Action portion, the players have gathered information and used that to put together a plan to dig deeper, to throw a monkey wrench in the vampires’ plans, or to go after the vampires themselves. GUMSHOE is a basic system with a single d6 roll to do everything. Points are added to the roll, spent from applicable General skills (as opposed to the Investigative ones mentioned earlier which always succeed) as pools to tip the scales of success, with target numbers ranging from 2 to 8 or maybe slightly higher based on difficulty. Commonly, though, they range from 3 – 5.
One of the other things that is interesting about the design of the game is the option to shift the feel by adjusting how things play or even adding or ignoring certain rules entirely. The four styles provided are Burn, Dust, Mirror, and Stakes, and offer different ways of looking at clandestine operations and campaigns. Examples of popular shows and books are given for a sense of “feel” so you and your players can decide what kind of game you wish to run against the vampires. Characters are built using a point buy system, though outside of two “indicators” (Health and Stability), everything in the system is skill-based rather than attribute-based, and there are plenty of skills to choose from.
Where a character came from, or in other words, what agency hosted them previously and how that agency trained them, can make a difference in what role they take on in a team. And their Drive, or in what is probably more common to our readers here, their Character Arc, helps focus a character on personal dramatic action apart from simply the main overarching campaign plot.
For the GM, a chapter on Vampires helps to offer a plethora of ideas of how to incorporate pieces of vampiric lore and fiction into a narrative to come up with unique enemies for the players to face. The chapter on Stories helps them get started thinking about how to run games in the GUMSHOE system, construct conspiracies and stories, and campaigns as well. The chapter on Cities gives them many potential backdrops in Europe to start with and travel to. And there is an introductory story called (S)Entries that is designed as both an example story for a GM and a way to get characters into a potential campaign. The appendix is full of forms and useful pages for a GM to use in plotting out and taking notes during a campaign.
This is another title that I hesitate to critique as I have not actually played the game. The biggest thing I would note, however, is that there is a lot of repeated information, though some of it is presented in different ways in different locations. While on a front-to-back read-through of the book, this is not a horrible thing at all (and in fact, might reinforce some of the core concepts), it may make referencing things more difficult later. There is, however, a fairly extensive index that will probably negate this concern. I saw plenty of examples in the book spread judiciously throughout, which makes me feel a lot more comfortable about the accessibility of the rules even if they may be more difficult for some to access coming from another ruleset.
Night’s Black Agents, powered by the GUMSHOE system is a game of exceptionally capable spies and special assets that are out in the cold and desperately trying to fight back against a world that they no longer recognize. It is a remarkable system that emphasizes empowering players to make good decisions with good data over playing “find the hidden plot stone” or “read the mind of the GM”. The simple dice mechanic combined with an equally simple pool mechanic forces the players to make some hard decisions about when and how to get involved in a situation and seems as if it would work remarkably well for a game that spends its time in the shadows and the night. It is absolutely on our playlist and there is even a modified game called Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops that takes the GUMSHOE system and adapts it to GUMSHOE One-2-One for a GM and a solitary player in case we are not able to find a group to play with that matches up with our schedules. After looking at this, I am intrigued enough to want to look at other games in the GUMSHOE system. Pelgrane Press seems to have put together a solid offering that focuses on the narrative and the cinematic in a way that resonates with us. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles