Thursday, 22 January 2015

Night's Black Agents

We're playing Night's Black Agents, GMed by the ever-capable +Stephen Shapiro. We're loving the campaign, but have very mixed feelings about the system.

If you're not familiar with it, Night's Black Agents is a GUMSHOE based game where you play burned spies on the run, who gradually realize that the powers they're up against have a distinctly supernatural flavor - the Illuminati is vampires.

You Must Be Taller Than Rocky To Solve This Case

GUMSHOE was originally created to power investigative scenarios, and there's a somewhat hippie mechanic at its core: rather than your skills being modifiers, they're exhaustible pools. When you have a '3' in Forensics skill, that means you can spend 3 points out of it until you refresh it.

On the other hand, spending a point is pretty powerful - instead of rolling to find the clue, if you spend the point, you've found it. As someone clever pointed out, shows like Sherlock and CSI aren't about people trying to find clues (and sometimes failing), they're about people finding clues. There's no flailing around, only furrowed brows.


Investigative pools refresh infrequently - only once per 'operation' for the most part, so they're a precious resource. We often find we've run out of something critical. This makes no in-game sense, but it has a few useful effects:

It shares the spotlight around - when you're out of the right kind of points, someone else probably has one.

It makes for 'good TV'. It may not make tactical sense to fire a bunch of gunshots then close to melee range with your combat knife, but it's kinda badass.

I can imagine if you're devoted to a strongly character-identified style of play, this would be really frustrating: there's no in-game/fictional reason you can't use your forensic scene. I thought this would feel annoying, but it seems to line up with good play habits well enough that it doesn't feel intrusive.

For me, that was the system's big surprise - given the 'out there' core mechanic, gameplay felt remarkably similar to other, more traditional games.

If you need one (and I usually don't), a rationalization that works for me is that we're just seeing the highlight reel. Forensics 3 doesn't mean you're Sherlock homes exactly three times and Watson the rest of the time, it just means that with a bunch of faffing around not shown on screen it turns out that your Forensics skill is what gives you the big break three times, and that's all we see.

The Conspyramid

On the GM's side is a piece of brilliance, the "Conspyramid".  The GM is encouraged to structure the vampire-controlled organization as a series of hierarchical nodes - at the top you might have a cabal of ancient vampires nestled in an NSA hard room; at the bottom you might have crooked local piece, 'turned' intelligence stations, or the Serbian mob dealing drugs out of a laundry.

At first, the players are tangling with the lowest levels; clues (inevitably found, one way or another) lead them to other nodes - but also, as the PCs cause damage, the conspyramid reacts like a wounded organism, at first curious, then angry and vengeful.

Villains higher-ups start asking questions as the low-level nodes go dark, using other low-level nodes to investigate. As the party makes its way up, the reprisals escalate, until finally they're being hounded in the night by carrion-fed ghouls that hunt by scent, targeted by SWAT teams acting on mysterious orders, or facing unmasked vampires themselves.

I Shoot Him For Zero Damage

Given such a fast-moving engine for tangling with the clues left by vampiric minions, the big disappointment was the combat system.

The skills that get used in combat are treated differently than investigative skills - here, rather than 'spend a point to find a clue', you dip into (much larger) pools for one-time modifiers to d6 rolls. Want a chance to shoot the bad guy? Spend a point of Shooting.

Definitely want to hit him? Spend three, or more if it's an especially hard shot.

That would be fine if combat weren't so freaking whiffy. It's like the worst of mid-level retro-clone combat. It's so unsatisfying to spend five points of Shooting to pull off that make-it-or-break-it shot, and then roll 2 points of damage.

It achieves spotlight-sharing, but in an awful way - individual actions are often either ineffective or inconsequential, so everyone gets a turn and scrape a couple of hit points off the villain.

It's irritating enough that there's a special combat system for fighting groups of low-powered villains if you get the jump on them, which mercifully allows you to kill them without rolling damage.

Full-Auto Point Spend, Please Hold

All the little tactical action and gun porn frills are handled, but holy snot, the special cases! Everything has its own little rule, and no two things are handled the same way. Like:

Point blank range modifies damage (but not the odds of hitting, unless the enemy is charging you); long range doesn't modify the odds of hitting, but you need to spend 2 extra points of Shooting to make the shot at all. Scopes reduce this cost (but not the odds of hitting), while laser dot sights reduce the long-range point cost and modify the to-hit roll, and allow your partner two free points of Intimidation.

Depleted uranium ammo (yay!) is resolved in three different ways (boo!), depending on the target. Against armor of grade 3 or less, it acts like incendiary ammo (flip flip), meaning it can ignite fuel/explosives but has a two-round penalty to both your and the target's to-hit threshold; against hard targets (regardless of their armor value) it bypasses armor completely and does +1 damage; otherwise it acts as armor-piercing rounds (flip flip) which reduces armor by half, rounded down.

I've taken to writing down the page numbers next to each skill, piece of equipment and accessory. It badly needs a reference sheet (booklet?), then a second edition edited by a scalpel.

A 9mm pistol causes d6 damage. An MP5 with a silencer, laser sight and hollow-point ammo, on the other hand, causes a d6-minute delay.

Why?!

Try Shooting Him In The Eye With A Wooden Bullet!

It's taken us a few sessions to figure out what the combat system wants us to do. It's demoralizing to spend 5 points on a brilliant display of martial arts but do no damage, because combat knives do d6-1; you really need a gun.

But choose wisely, fully automatic weapons just allow you spend more Shooting points (literally, spend 3 more points to roll more damage). On the other hand, flash-bang grenades seem to bypass the GUMSHOE ideology completely, doing massive amount of stun damage to everyone in range.

This led to a hilarious scene in our third session, with +Tim Groth's character having crippled two flak-armored ghoul-handlers in their BMW with a well-aimed flash-bang toss, only to follow up with hilariously useless rounds of SMG fire, failing to hurt them at all.

Then it came to me. The combat system is the framework for a second type of investigation.

Seriously, why would there be this mad little table with separate to-hit and damage penalties for each body part.  (Chest, -2 to hit if the target is facing you, -4 if they're facing away, +3 damage in either case; limbs, -2 to hit, +0 damage; heart, -3 to hit, +4 damage, etc.)?

The game wants you to try it all out!

NBA encourages the GM to customize their vampires for their campaign, giving them different basis (supernatural, viral, etc.), powers and weaknesses. You can explore this space, but instead of Forensics or Streetwise skill, you use different combinations of weapons, ammunition, and called shots.  Wooden bullets to the heart not doing it? Try incendiary ammunition to the eyes!

All that grindy combat certainly gives you plenty of opportunities.

Combat As Investigation

I feel like it would be an improvement to ditch all the modifiers and whiffing, and treat combat skill usage much more like investigative skills: every time you use a point of Shooting (or Weapons, or Hand-to-Hand) you succeed, with an effect appropriate to the in-game situation:

If you're trapped in elevator with two thugs and only a pen as your weapon, a point of Weapons will let you kill one of them and take a bit of a beating from the other, getting horribly bloody in the process.

If you've got an SMG, one point of Shooting will let you cause lethal damage to whoever you have in your sights, unless you're shooting at something SMGs don't hurt, like armored cars or vampires.

Scopes, laser sights, depleted uranium rounds, are all just tweaks to the fictional positioning that let you spend your Shooting points on tougher targets, in just the same way that a 10' ladder lets you climb better.

Why not let the GUMSHOE engine do its work?

The Burning of Intermodal X LLC

Last night's session was great fun, and I think it's worthy aside to my ranting about mechanics.

We're in Serbia, following leads we've gleaned from a stolen laptop. Belgrade is seeming decidedly unfriendly these days, and we've caught the attention of the very pissed off Bonchev mob, who we've managed to figure out are working for the suspiciously pale Sergei Dragonov.

A lot of our options have been cut off or burned, including our former handlers. Licking our wounds in a safe house, we're ambushed by a pack of ghouls - incredibly strong undead things wearing GoPro cameras, which was our first scary brush with the supernatural, back in session 3.

Reeling from that fight, we decided to take the fight to the enemy. Intercepting the ghouls' broadcast signal, our hacker managed to track them back to a warehouse controlled by shipping distributor Intermodal X, where they're 'stored' in a steel vault.

In session 4, we successfully infiltrated the apartment of Intermodal Belgrade's general manager. Stephen rendered this in heartbreaking detail, down to the bottle of antidepressants in his bathroom cabinet. Dressed as HVAC repair crew, we replaced his smartphone's USB charger with one that'll inject our hacker's custom apps.

Session 5, licking our wounds from another ambush while trying to extract a burned contact, we decide to take down Intermodal and the ghouls.  We show up as exterminators (Intermodal is mostly a legit business) in a hastily repainted van, and try to talk our way in.

Fortunately, our hacker has cloned the general manager's phone by now, so when they call to get authorization for something not on the schedule, he takes the call.

Simultaneously, a surprise delivery shows up - a truck full of packing peanuts, courtesy of our hacker +Tim Groth.  While Moisha (our tweed front man played by +Sean Winslow) kills time with Intermodal's irritated security team, +Michael Atlin and I (playing the wet work heavies) head down to the basement where the ghouls are stored.

We've come prepared! You know what sorta looks like industrial pesticide-applying gear? A thermal lance.  Fsshhhhhhhhh

We jump our security escort and make short work of the pair of them, then set to burning our way into the vault. We don't need a big hole, because you know what also sorta looks like industrial pesticide-applying gear? A scratch-built flamethrower.

Rebreathers (also standard industrial exterminator gear) keep us cosy while our smoke bomb goes off; the hacker trips the alarms to cause more chaos upstairs. Intermodal starts evacuating. Thing is, there's a detail of Bonchevs upstairs, led by surprisingly pale and strong Dragonov, and it doesn't take them long to realize something is seriously wrong.

But Moisha, on the lookout, spots them coming down the external staircase - he ambushes them with a flashbang tossed through the security door, and move in with my flamethrower. Turns out that flamethrowers at the right range are like flashbangs, awfully cheaty and point-efficient. The mooks don't stand a chance, and even Dragonov goes down under the intense one-two combo. It's hideous, but then that's the job some days. 

In Conclusion

Night's Black Agents combines excellent GM advice for campaign-structuring with a hippie approach to investigation, resulting in fast-moving conspiracy-hunting gameplay; we're having tremendous fun.  For no good reason this beautifully humming engine groans under a fatty layer of mediocre combat rules in dire need of simplification.

Would play again.