This week I’ll provide the second of my three GUMSHOE system reviews for a game I’m running right now: Night’s Black Agents.
I’ll get around to posting material from that game once my recaps for the Climbers conclude, likely in November.
Night’s Black Agents is a game about ex-spies uncovering and taking down a world spanning conspiracy run by vampires. Think the Bourne Series crossed with Dracula. Your characters are expert espionage agents and your foes the hordes of the undead.
I’ve had a bit of experience with this game with my players being four sessions into a campaign, having played a game at GenCon, and having also contributed to the Dracula Dossier kickstarter (which is a mega freeform campaign for Night’s Black Agents).
I reviewed the rules of GUMSHOE in general before. Night’s Black Agents adapts those rules to a higher action setting.
The game encourages exciting action is by granting refreshes (where a character regains 3 or more spent points of an ability) whenever they describe their character’s actions with a high-octane level of detail. For example from one my games, PC declared that she threw a chair through the interior window of private booth in a nightclub, leapt out before the suicide bomber went off, grabbing hold of the railing on the level below (on the side facing the dance floor below) and swinging down to the floor in a single fluid motion. So I refreshed her Athletic pool for escape.
The game also provides many rules for handling standard action movie moves: using a mook (low-end opponent) as a shield, firing two guns at once, shooting someone in a specific location (like the heart), disarming, making multiple fast attacks at once, and so on.
Night’s Black Agents includes a decent chase system for foot chases and high-speed car chases. It also has a long-term chase mechanic for agents on the run across countries and borders over the course of days.
Despite the number of options the game flows well. After a good read through you start to get a feel for it. Generally if you are unsure about a rule, you charge 3 skill points from an appropriate General ability to let a character try the action and then make them roll.
Night’s Black Agents also introduces the idea of using spends of Investigative abilities to gain temporary points to spend on General pools. Perhaps your agents case out a meet site and spend a point of Architecture to map out the escape routes and sight lines. Then they get a pool of points (say 3 per player character) to be spent on Athletics and Shooting checks within that location.
All of this extra points to spend encourages the players to take larger risks and push their characters to enact the crazy actions you’d expect of the genre. They need to learn not to hold back. Their opponents surely won’t.
Building a Better Vampire
Night’s Black Agents of course gives us lots of stats for minions from gangsters to special ops to werewolves to various mythological vampires. It also provides a few examples of the real deal, the full fledge masters behind the conspiracy.
But where it really shines are its numerous options for customizing and building your particular vampires whether they be the spawn of hell or some rogue corporate lab. Are your vampires stranded aliens or do they feed on psychic energy? Are they a growing plague or did the Russian government stop after the first batch of 50 were produced?
In addition to questions of origins, numbers and society, the game provides a whole list of powers and options for statting out your hungry creations.
The monsters of course are just one part of the equation. The other half are their pawns in their grand conspiracy. While mechanically simpler, managing such a sprawling scheme is complex. The game helps by codifying the Conspyramid, a diagram that illustrates the conspiracy from its lowest reaches (at level 1) to its hidden masters (at level 6). When the heroes defeat a node on the pyramid they move on to the next node, slowly working their way up the chain of command. Additionally the system also guides you in how to balance the skill level of the agents at each level.
Paralleling the Conspyramid is the Vampyramid, a simplified system of how the conspiracy reacts to the actions of the player characters.
Night’s Black Agents hasn’t seen Trail of Cthulhu’s level of support yet: a couple of adventures, a supplement and the epic Dracula Dossier. The supplement however, Double Tap, is well worth purchasing. It’s basically everything that couldn’t fit into the main book including further discussion of what each skill means and how you might use them to gain clues, expansion of chase mechanics to all sorts of contests, spy gear, and more.
For the game master it provides sample backdrops, NPCs, a few new worked out vampires and minions, rules for running the game in different eras, and other mechanical help.
Night’s Black Agents delivers on the promise of exciting action and is fairly forgiving on player characters trying to play larger than life heroes.
I also like that it is a game with well-defined ending. At some point, should you survive long enough, you will work way up the conspiracy (which only has six levels) and take down the monster or monsters at the top. It’s a feature of many of my favorite games (such as Promethean: the Created). Roleplaying games to me are about creating stories and stories eventually end. I think it improves a game to keep that mind and to focus on delivering a satisfying ending.