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Gumshoe Spy Thrillers

I got two things over Christmas (other than spending the holiday sunning myself in Fuertaventura): 13th Age and Night’s Black Agents. These games are what you would call my first serious ‘post-Fate love’ purchase. I still adore Fate, but finding other systems that might appeal to me is always good, and I’m still not convinced half the group like Fate for anything but convention length games (if at all) anyway.

I’ve been absorbing both, but today we’re discussing Night’s Black Agents.

Night’s Black Agents is one of those games I should have probably had on my ‘to get’ list when it was released over a year ago. If you discount volumes of internet discussion one of the game designers who has influenced my approach to gaming so much is Robin D Laws (mostly through Fengshui, the game full of running games like action films, and Over the Edge, the game a 1001 early Indie games span off from). Throw in a system designed to run cinematic spy thrillers well, a favourite genre of mine, designed by Laws, and what’s possibly not to love?

Night’s Black Agents is one of those games that passes the first test: it makes you want to play it…now. It’s not so much the atmosphere of setting and place, but more the love, knowledge and understanding of cinematic thrillers of various types. This is suffused through the character and skills section to the point you want to make all sorts of exciting characters that you know will be modelled well as tough, resourceful, clever and deadly cinematic protagonists. The system also manages to convince you the hacker will be as awesome as the archaeologist who will be given a run for his money by the CIA analyst while still allowing the gun-toting assassin to do his stuff.

The core strength of the system comes from how it handles skills: it models skills like they are used in cinematic thrillers. The gathering of information (Investigative skills) are separated from normal, general skills (those handy at the sharp end). This models the structure of thrillers in that the information gathering acts as a connecting mechanism (the how to get there skills) to rising conflict and action (the skills used in the cinematic action). The protagonists join the connections in cool and slick ways, never really standing around stumped. That’s the theory.

This is why investigative skills always succeed.

While not getting into the detail of this, it basically means the system models what any half-decent GM knows already: you never want the players to fail to find the clues. As a result, you move clues to different people and places to make sure they are found. The Gumshoe system supports this by allowing the experts in their field to always find the connecting clues, one could even say the clues are defined by the skills the players’ choose to use (though this isn’t explicit). These skills, along with neat stuff like Cover, Network and Preparedness (allowing protagonists to conjure up identities, individuals and prepared stuff on the fly) adds ‘game structure’ to how any GM, who doesn’t want his game to descend into frustration and confusion, knows his game has to operate anyway.

General skills operate in a more typical way. You roll a dice and add skill points and see if you get over a set difficulty. The wrinkle is the skill points are not your skill level but points allocated from your kill level as a pool. This means you can effectively run out, meaning you roll a basic die. The protagonists key skills, the highest ones, have ways to refresh it would seem. The highest ones also have cherries, effectively cool Fengshui-style shticks that further elevates their awesome.

At the moment, I have two visions of Gumshoe. In the book it all sounds natural and perfect. In reality, when we played it through Trail of Cthulhu, it didn’t feel as fluid as the text probably suggested in the Trail book. There was the ‘do I need to spend an investigation point here’ moments and ‘is there another clue to find’ pauses. This would cause the GM to break the fourth wall repeatedly to say we’d milked the scene dry. In a strange way, I felt this sort of defeated the point? As for general skills, it’s all too easy to become concerned about whether you should spend them now or later!

Still, I think there is some learning with respect to executing the system effectively and I think that learning sits in a few areas: where are the clues and are they active or passive? In the Trail of Cthulhu game where the clues sat was with the GM and they all seemed to be active (they required a point spend to find). To keep the game running smoothly and for the scenes of rising conflict and action to flow I suspect ‘where’ the clues are has to be, if not completely, to some degree defined by where the protagonists look? The distribution of passive and active clues may also have to be more varied and dynamic to events. It may also ease the ‘prep burden’ as you move to the principles of what could connect the scenes rather than being very specific at the design point.

There is all sorts of other good looking stuff in Night’s Black Agents that I’ve not fully got to yet. The combat system (which could make or break it). The design of the vampires. The conspiracy design tools that need to be in the toolbox of any GM (along with the advice on clues and information driving stories). Thrilling chases and combats. Then you have info on spy agencies and European cities. It’s a dense, but very interesting book.

The true genius of Night’s Black Agents is, though it wraps things up in the premise of ‘the vampire spy thriller’ to provide focus, give the game an immediate purpose and a tagline or sound bite, the game is much more than that.

In the first instance, what counts as a ‘vampire’ is quite broad within the definition of the book. In the second, it already includes other ‘monsters’ making it more of a supernatural spy thriller (despite the vampires possibly being aliens, a sentient virus or whatever). In the third, it would work just as well with the Cthulhu Mythos. Finally, the spread of skills and how they work means the ‘spy thriller’ could actually just be a cinematic thriller consisting of no one who is actually a spy, but instead archaeologists, scientists and mercenaries of action investigating a global conspiracy. Hell, the game even supports people getting all CSI, though a campaign purely based on that would be a stretch.

In short, what you are getting is a great system for any game that falls into the narrative rhythm of thrillers featuring Homo Fictus, competent characters whether this is something like a Dan Brown novel, or something Tomb Raider-esque.

This is a great prospect.

About Ian O'Rourke

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