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.