Review: Night’s Black Agents

Posted: 18 March 2015 in Reviews
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"One of us always stays awake, in case of vampires." – Peanuts

It looks like I might get to GM for another group, and in looking for something exciting and different to run, I landed on Night’s Black Agents.

In a Nutshell: It’s The Bourne Identity meets Underworld; badass secret agents vs vampires with the world at stake. (Hur hur.) No pressure, then. 233 page PDF, written by Ken Hite.

CONTENT

Introduction (3 pages): This explains the goal of the game, which is to create a vampire spy thriller, and the modes in which this can be done: Burn, which focusses on the psychological cost to the characters of what they do; Dust, which tones down the over-the-top cinematic defaults to give you a gritty, deadly game; Mirror, which focusses on issues of trust and betrayal; and Stakes, which assumes the PCs are driven by a higher purpose. You can of course mix and match those; my all-time favourite vampire show, the British TV mini-series Ultraviolet, was a Dust/Mirror mix with some of the characters having Stakes as well.

Characters (34 pages): Character generation is a point-buy system in four stages. First, you choose a background, or several; this isn’t a character class per se, but does denote the PC’s role in the team – wheelman, muscle, hacker, and so on. Second, choose investigative abilities – streetwise, tradecraft and so on; these always work, so the PCs will never miss a clue, although they may misinterpret it. Third, choose general abilities – shooting, hand to hand, driving; these require a die roll (on 1d6) to succeed, but the points you put into them can be spent to modify the roll. In this stage you also pick the PC’s MOS; this is one general ability at which you excel, even for a superspy, and once per session you can declare that you automatically succeed when using it. Finally, you create the PC’s personality and dossier; this is partly just backstory, but also optionally includes sources of stability – the people and places that keep the PC sane, and allow him to destress between operations. (Naturally, these will at some point become targets for his enemies…) The PC also has a Drive, which is the thing that motivates him to keep fighting the vampires rather than run and hide.

Adventures in NBA are composed of either intelligence gathering, which uses investigative abilities, or confrontation, which uses general ones. At its most basic, dangerous situations get you information, which leads you to the next dangerous situation, which leads you to another clue, and so on.

General abilities also have "cherries"; these are special features that kick in when you have at least 8 points in the ability. My favourite is Preparedness, which is the ability covering how well you select and pack your gear for the mission. At 8 points, you can retroactively prepare timely specific actions in flashback during play – "I thought this might happen, so last night I rigged his car; I can cut his engine anytime using this…"

Character creation works better as a group effort, because the group will need every investigative ability at some point, so you need to make sure that between them, the group has them all. If you are using the optional trust and betrayal rules, the PCs also need to record how much they trust each of the others. Trust acts as a kind of roving modifier whereby one PC can help another; by betraying each other, PCs can get significant one-time bonuses on actions that hinder the one betrayed.

Players are allowed to reserve build points and spend them in play, as a staple of the genre is suddenly revealing that you could speak Bulgarian all along.

Rules (51 pages): The rules chapter is long, and mostly special cases. What you need to know is this:

  • You always find the clues. Always. You may not understand them, but you will not miss any. However, by spending points, you can get more information – you don’t need this extra information, but it can help speed things up.
  • In a confrontation, you roll 1d6 plus the number of points you want to spend on it, and try to hit a target number, usually 4. You commit the points before rolling the die.
  • Points you spend grow back either at specific points in the game, or when you do something especially cool (for example use your 8 points in Athletics to free-run across the roofs of Paris).
  • Points are not skill levels in the usual sense. Points are a way to signal how much a particular scene is about your character doing cool stuff.
  • You have Health (resistance to damage, lose too much and you die) and Stability (resistance to emotion shocks and betrayal, lose too much and you go insane).

Tools (25 pages): Here’s the gear chapter, and my eyes are not glazing over, which is almost unique. The PCs are superspies, and they have access to any conventional item appropriate to the genre, or anything a middle-class European would be able to buy. Acquiring gear only takes up screen time when it has narrative importance (like Bourne’s cache of passports in the Swiss bank) or can be handled very quickly. There’s no money in the game as such; if something is easy to get, you’ve got it, and if it’s hard to get, you make a general ability test to get at it. The gear list is therefore a short descriptive paragraph for each item, generally with no stats attached.

The Tools chapter is more than just gear, though; it’s also a primer on tradecraft for players. It encourages the group to maintain an adversary map – one of those things the protagonists in the movies always have, a cork board covered in photos, notes, and little pieces of string linking them together. How is the terrorist cell in Marseilles connected to the overall conspiracy? Who sent the hitman after them? Why?

Vampires (45 pages): This is where GM-only territory starts, with a build-your-own vampire kit. Are the vampires supernatural, damned souls, aliens, mutants, or some combination? Where did they originate? What are their powers, weaknesses and objectives? How many of them are there? Can they be cured, and if so, how? Some modes work better with some types of vampire, and there’s guidance on this. There are five different example vampires if you want to cut to the chase and start staking, and a dozen unnatural creatures they might have in support, as well as animals related to vampires in various folkloric traditions. (Stock human NPCs are elsewhere in the book.)

The vampire kit is followed by a conspiracy kit, and the GM’s conspyramid, which is a pyramid of nodes in six levels, from street gangs to the vampire elders themselves. This is the narrative framework of the game, showing who the opposition is, what clues can be found when they are defeated, and – when linked with the vampyramid below – what the conspiracy does in retaliation for being poked at that level. In the example conspiracy provided, a raid on a radar station (level 1) can provide clues leading to a member of the Israeli mafia (level 2) or a ring of heroin smugglers (level 3).

There are several non-pyramidal conspiracy structures, but my instinct is that they would be too confusing for the players.

Cities (24 pages): Most of the action in NBA, especially gathering information, happens in cities – the game as written assumes somewhere in Europe. The chapter explains how to set up one or more cities for the game, with a few examples; provides capsule descriptions of the nations, and also the real-world intelligence, terrorist and criminal organisations operating on the continent.

Stories (10 pages): This is advice to the GM on how to set up adventures; the rhythm of spying and fighting scenes which drive each scenario, the conspyramid which shows where the clues take the PCs and who they fight when they get there, the framework of scenes in a standard thriller and how to modify them, the types of missions that the PCs or their opposition mount, and the vampyramid I mentioned above; this is a list of retaliation options the vampires have when you poke their nest with a stick, such as offering to pay you off, framing you for murder, etc. The GM is encouraged to avoid repetition here; being framed once is a challenge, being framed twice is boring.

Scenarios dealt with, we move on to campaigns; the default NBA campaign begins with the PCs learning that vampires exist, the vampires finding out that they know, and then shifts into a race to see which side can wipe the other out first.

Finally, there is a section on alternatives to the vampire conspiracy; straight-up spy stories, Cthulhu, or psionics.

(S)entries (9 pages): This is a introductory scenario, in which the PCs are hired to suppress evidence of something. The action takes them across the Balkans, through fights, car chases and double-crosses, to the realisation of what the evidence is, and how far the opposition will go to suppress it.

Addenda (15 pages): Character sheets, GM worksheets, quick reference sheets.

FORMAT

Unusually, this document is laid up in three columns, black on white with red or grey headings, and the occasional colour illustration. Crisp, clean, a pleasure to read.

CONCLUSIONS

I love spy stories almost as much as I love science fiction, I love playing with conspiracy ideas, I’m OK with vampires, and Ken Hite is the ideal author to merge those elements into a kickass game, which he has duly done.

It does rely on the players sharing responsibility for the narrative, and in my experience not all groups are comfortable with this. The conspyramid is effectively a sandbox; like a dungeon map it presents the PCs with choices of routes to follow, but they must decide which lead to follow up and how.

The GM also needs to prepare quite a lot in advance; the actual sessions may be improvised, but you need to know what your vampires are like, how their conspiracy is structured, and what their objectives are; these give you the framework within which you can improvise.

If you plan on running this game, watch Ultraviolet first. Seriously.

If you don’t, there are a lot of ideas here that are worth pilfering. The conspyramid for the overall campaign structure; the vampyramid for how the bad guys react to the PCs’ meddling; the notes on how to run a thriller story. These are things that I will take with me into the next campaign – in fact I can retrofit them into the Shadows of Keron adventure in Caldeia which will start next time the PCs foregather. Be a shame not to, really.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Man, I want to run this now; and I think it could be done online, too. Got some prep work first though…

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Comments
  1. rsmsingers says:

    By online do you mean real time, or play by email?

    • andyslack says:

      I was thinking of real time, because NBA looks better suited to that, but I suppose play by email could work also,

  2. Brass Jester says:

    My bank balance curses you to the deepest pits below Caldeia. After reading this review, OF COURSE I had to get the PDF. Looking forward to a good read. Don’t remember ‘Ultraviolet’, although at the time we were caring for a young baby (Ben). Scary to think he’s 18 now with a two year old daughter of his own. After watching the trailer on Youtube, have ordered this as well.

  3. Brass Jester says:

    Am busy reading the rules and have just watched the first episode of ‘Ultraviolet’. OMG this is brilliant! (and I’m referring to the Game and the series).

  4. […] Rules of Reprisal (34 pages): The Gumshoe rules – I’ve reviewed these before here and here. I don’t like them, but the salient points are that they preclude the PCs missing […]

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