I’m not afraid to admit that I have a problem. I buy more role-playing game books than I will ever have time to play, despite my sincere desire to do so.
There are whole lines of games that I absolutely love, and for which I have purchased all (or at least the vast majority) of book, but that I’ve never gotten to run for any gaming group. And yet, I can’t help myself—there’s just too much good stuff out there to let it pass me by.
Night’s Black Agents is one such game.
Back in 2007, Pelgrane Press released The Esoterrorists, a game using a new system, which they called The GUMSHOE System. At the time, the GUMSHOE System purported to fix a problem that I never had—investigative scenarios that hinged on the players making a particular role to gain a particular clue that was required for the game to proceed. If the players didn’t successfully make that role, it would be a roadblock in the scenario.
The GUMSHOE System was advertised as a game system where that couldn’t happen, as characters will always find the essential clues needed to proceed. It’s not about finding clues, but interpreting the clues they have.
Personally, I always looked at that particular situation as a failure of both the written scenario and the person running the game. If you set up your scenario so that a single failed roll can stall everything, then you’ve made a big mistake. It wasn’t the system that was the problem there at all.
But Night’s Black Agents (which I’ll just refer to as NBA from here on out) is the one that got me.
The premise of NBA is that the player characters are former spies (e.g. ex-CIA, or ex-KGB, or ex-MI6, etc.). At some point in their past, these characters broke from their respective agencies. Maybe they retired (yeah, right), maybe they were burned, maybe they faked their own deaths, whatever. Since that time, they’ve operated as independent agents, keeping a low profile and working on jobs as necessary as make a living.
The game begins when they get called together for a job, a la Ronin. But when things go south, they discover that there is some real strangeness going on—things that don’t have easy explanations. And they are no longer in a position to just walk away, because the conspiracy is now aware of them.
Ultimately, NBA is about uncovering a conspiracy ultimately controlled by vampires. Imagine if the secret head of Treadstone (from The Bourne Identity film) was actually a blood-sucking fiend, using the organization to eliminate threats to its own survival and control.
Now vampires in NBA don’t have to actually be blood-sucking fiends at all. The game provides many options for the Director (the name for the person running the game) to create his or her own unique vampire nemesis.
When creating your vampires, the game offers multiple options. For example, how can you generally class your vampires?
- Supernatural: “Vampires are the result of magical or other supernatural activities on Earth: spirits, ghosts, necromancy, witchcraft, and the like.”
- Damned: “Vampires are the work of Satan or other explicitly demonic entities opposed to mankind and God.”
- Alien: “Vampires are alien beings, or earthly beings who nevertheless follow different laws of physics. Such ‘paraphysical’ vampires might be alien invaders, psychic phenomena, corpses animated by alien science, or just ‘humans’ from another dimension.”
- Mutant: Vampires are earthly beings infected or changed by (or into) some freak of nature. Such ‘parabiological’ vampires may be mutants, constructs of some black program, humans adapted to future conditions of plague or global cooling, insane humans obsessed with blood, or sentient diseases that possess their hosts.”
Then you need to select the origin of your vampires, how far they have spread, how many there are in the world (or just in this particular conspiracy), how many different types there are (if any), whether they are truly dead or not, to what extent are they still human, whether or not there is a cure for them, what special abilities do they possess, and what kinds of weaknesses can the characters exploit?
The book gives the Director great options for each of these questions, and you can mix and match them into a huge number of possible combinations. Or, you can go with traditional mythological vampires and have all of that work done for you.
After that, the book delves into creating the vampire conspiracy. What are they up to? What kind of resources do they have? Who are their allies and who are their enemies? This conspiracy is what the players will attempt to unravel in the course of the game.
NBA was released in 2012, and it took me four years to “discover” this game. More and more, as scenarios and campaign packs were released for it, the buzz around NBA grew. And so I read a few reviews and some actual play accounts, and I reached a point where my curiosity got the better of me.
And now that I have the NBA core rules, and a few supplements, I cannot wait to run it.
This is obviously not a game for everyone. It needs players who are interested in covert operations and investigations. It needs players who want to act like actual spies (these people are not James Bond). The book has a chapter with great advice to players, like “When stuck, get more intel” and “Follow the money” and “Build your own network.” The book expands on these ideas and provides the players with ideas on how to succeed in their investigations against the vampire conspiracy.
The mechanics of the GUMSHOE System have gone through multiple iterations since 2007, and they support investigations without turning them into tedious, “ask a million questions” grindfests. The characters are able to quickly collect important clues that will point them in one or more directions, and it’s up to them to decide where to go next. And their activities will inevitably lead them into short, sudden, violent conflicts with their enemies, to add a healthy dose of excitement to the proceedings.
Jason Bourne versus a vampire conspiracy. If that sounds cool to you, then this is the game to check out.
For those interested in how a game might actually play out, there is a fantastic Actual Play thread on RPG.net by Mathew McFarland.
Have you played Night’s Black Agents or another GUMSHOE System game? What was your campaign like? If you’ve never played a GUMSHOE game, do know if any good fiction with a similar feel to NBA?
Tell us about it in the comments.