by Kenneth Hite
The Cold War? Over. The War on Terror? Over. For you.
You used to uncover secrets, or maybe kill to keep them. You used to serve your country in the shadows, doing things – or stopping things – that couldn’t be shown in daylight or on the evening news.
Then you stopped. Maybe you got tired, or maybe you got burned, or maybe you got out while you could.
But you didn’t go into the daylight. Not just yet. You stayed in the shadows, in Europe’s underground networks of crime and conflict, and you did it on your terms. You did a few ops, and asked fewer questions. You worked for money in secret accounts, and for people you didn’t know.
But they weren’t people. It turned out they couldn’t be shown in daylight or on the evening news either. Because they were vampires.
And now you know. And they know that you know.
Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? How much is legend, and what is the truth? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions and picking targets. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.
You must mount your own shadow war, against a secret terror that only you know exists. Stay alert, stay awake. It’s going to be a long night.
In poker, tells are those little gestures or changes of expression that tell what’s in your hand. This is where I tell what’s in your hands.
This game, Night’s Black Agents, adapts the GUMSHOE engine to the propulsive paranoia of the spy thriller genre: not just James Bond, but also and especially Ronin and the Bourne trilogy. You build agents worthy of such films; tough, resourceful, clever, deadly – in a word, badass. Then you send them to kill vampires.
The Director (who plays the role usually called the DM or the GM in other RPGs), begins by building the vampires. In Night’s Black Agents, the vampires and their conspiracy are modular, customizable. In one Director’s world, they might fear garlic and crosses – in another Director’s campaign, they might be spider-like aliens who move through hyperspace. Or both. Likewise, the Director builds the enemy network – the people and groups the vampires have already turned to their ends – to her own specifications.
Then the Director sends the vampires, and their own agents, and their pawns and tools and ghouls and monsters, to kill you. The goal – both yours and the Director’s – is action, and horror, and the special thrills that only spy stories can deliver.
Throughout a typical Night’s Black Agents campaign, the agents:
- Uncover the extent of the vampire conspiracy, mapping its branches and personnel
- Survive attacks by the vampires or their minions and pawns
- Discover the vampires’ weaknesses and true nature
- Detect and prevent ongoing and ad hoc vampire or conspiratorial operations
- Weaken the vampire conspiracy by striking at its main branches or key personnel
- Finally, destroy the vampires at the heart of the conspiracy
Any of these goals might provide the direction, the spine, the through-line, of a scenario or adventure, usually referred to in this game as an “operation.”
The Director, meanwhile, plots out the structure of the vampire conspiracy, and plans both active and reactive operations to test the agents and reveal the plot. “Active” operations are the ones where the agents are moving forward against the vampires: investigating their conspiracy, thwarting its goals, and attacking it. “Reactive” operations are the ones where the vampires are moving forward: attacking some other group, infiltrating some new city, or hunting the agents directly.
Either way, the Director maps out a structure for the operation: What is the agents’ (or opposition’s) goal, and what is the adventure’s spine? What tips the agents off to an opportunity or a threat? What information is available, and where or from whom can the agents get it? What assets does the opposition have in position? What is the end game – what happens if the agents uncover the truth in Venice, or if the vampires succeed in Odessa?
[Editor’s Note: In Trail of Cthulhu, Ken Hite gives a choice of play modes, Pulp and Purist, to reflect the breadth of Lovecraft’s stories. Night’s Black Agents takes this idea and applies to the spy thriller genre in the playtest rules. I’ve added a few notes in square brackets]
Night’s Black Agents is “a vampire spy thriller.” That means its default setting is a world of horror and shadows, with flashes of action. Its upbeat lands on the thrills and the flavor, with espionage and problem-solving on the downbeat to set up the action.
Not every spy thriller is the same. Some deal in black and white morality, others in shades of gray self-loathing. Some chart emotional damage more intently than they do bullet trajectories. Others try to mess with your mind, and let your adrenal glands take care of themselves. They play in different idioms, styles, or modes. Many spy stories, especially series like the Bond novels and films, TV shows like Alias or MI-5, or the Queen and Country comics, switch between modes depending on the demands of the individual story. Others, like John Le Carré’s Smiley novels or the Bourne trilogy of films, stick to one mode and deepen it throughout.
For those who wish to emphasize one or another idiom, we have broken out a few possible modes of play and indicated those rules and game elements most suited for them with specific icons and options. These modes can certainly be combined in any pattern the players desire, and some rules (such as Sources of Stability) work with almost all modes. The Director may decide that some rules and elements are simply not allowed in her game in order to inculcate a specific flavor of spy thriller, which is after all the entire point.
Some spy stories privilege psychological damage and the cost of heroism: the Bourne trilogy of films, the TV series Alias and Callam, and the espionage novels of Graham Greene, for example. Horrors drain your soul as much as they do your blood; you look into the abyss and see the abyss welcoming you in.
In Burn mode games, psychological damage is more intense; the actions agents must take inevitably burn away their humanity. Your Stability is capped at 12, and degrades faster. Killing is never easy, and never free.
The default setting of Night’s Black Agents is a cinematic thriller. To recreate the gritty, lo-fi espionage world of Anthony Price or Charles McCarry, similar to the TV series The Sandbaggers or Rubicon, or films like Three Days of the Condor, you can “de-power” the game into Dust mode by:
- removing the MOS [Military Occupational Speciality] rules
- removing the cherries for ratings of 8+ in most General abilities [Cherries are special benefits you get for having high abilities, such as the improved Hit Threshold for high Athletics]
- capping Health at 10
- restricting the Thriller Combat rules or eliminating them entirely [Thriller Combat features Called Shots, Mook Shield, and Martial Arts for example]
Most Dust mode media incorporates at least two of Mirror, Burn, and Stakes as well, but there’s nothing forcing you to do so.
In Dust mode, the vampires and their agents will be far more challenging and powerful in open combat. Design, and encourage your players to design, operations that avoid shootouts unless the team has an overwhelming positional advantage, or some surprising ace in the hole.
Many spy stories, especially in the modern era, present a “wilderness of mirrors,” a world of hidden agendas and shifting allegiances. They threaten personal identity and self-knowledge, mirroring those threats in betrayal and contests between corrupt opponents where the protagonist must trust only his own moral sense — if he can remember it. This is the world of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels and Barry Eisler’s John Rain thrillers, of movies like Ronin and Spy Games, of TV shows like The Prisoner and MI-5.
In Mirror mode games, your contacts and even your team are unreliable; your partners can help you with Trust, or destroy you with Betrayal. [These new rules allow PvP conflict based on new Trust mechanics]
Although more common in earlier spy fiction than now, some spy stories play for higher stakes. The characters derive their actions from a higher purpose than mere survival or “get the job done” ethics: patriotism, the search for knowledge, protection of the innocent, or even justified revenge. This is the world of James Bond and Jack Ryan, of Tim Powers’ novel Declare, of films like Taken, of TV shows like Burn Notice.
In Stakes mode games, your agents have Drives that urge them forward; this rule is highly recommended for games in any mode. In Burn mode, Drives can force the characters to sacrifice themselves; in Mirror mode, conflicting agendas can escalate the drama. Even Dust mode agents often aim higher than just getting out from under the looming threat.