The Unbourne Identity

From the keyboard of Kenneth Hite…
For those of you who have somehow been occupying yourselves with other pursuits than my game design career, perhaps I should mention that a pre-order edition of my vampire spy thriller RPG Night’s Black Agents is available now from Pelgrane Press. More on that below, where the horrid, horrid stench of commercialism belongs.

I’ve been taking some notes in my own pre-press copy (the “Dragonmeet Special Edition”) based on comments and play (and some early and flattering reviews) from early orderers, and it’s interesting how much the playtest comments and the pre-order comments differ. Playtesters (who, admittedly, were only working from about two-thirds or three-quarters of the text) mostly looked at either big-picture things (“reorder this”) or tactical single-session concerns (“this move costs too much”). Pre-orderers seem to be addressing larger game play questions, many of them more properly GUMSHOE questions (“why don’t all the mooks just unload their whole Shooting pool in one round”) but some specific to elements of my design like the Conspyramid. It may just be a function of the difference between “play this scenario or maybe make one up please” of playtesting and the “try to figure out what you’d run with the game book you just bought” of new-book smell.

Speaking of the Conspyramid, Pelgrane is running a Design Your Own Consypramid Contest over in their precincts. (That link includes the Conspyramid text from the rules, which I think is actually quite clever in parts.) Enter and win!

Also, I added something I noticed on my umptieth viewing of The Bourne Ultimatum, plus one or two things from Robin’s upcoming Esoterrorists 2.0 revision, and I’m a compulsive tweaker of my own text, so the red pen has been busy.

On a recent Night’s Black Agents-centric episode of The Game’s the Thing, the host Ron Blessing asked me how I went about designing the game. As I believe I mentioned on that ‘cast, I hit on the notion that thrillers are speeded-up mysteries (“where’s the sniper?”) fairly early, and then ran across the fairly common (if commonly unfair) idea that a thriller is a mystery in which the reader already knows who did it. That gave me the story skeleton, onto which I put the Conspyramid and Elizabeth Sampat’s Push Pyramid from her incredible RPG Blowback, barely disguised as the Vampyramid in my game. The rest was just lots and lots of viewings of the Bourne trilogy, Taken, Ronin, Heat, and lots more spy stuff to find things that the PCs needed to be able to do, and figuring out how to do them in GUMSHOE. (Watching TV shows like Nikita, Burn Notice, and Leverage kind of split the difference: tactical in-session tools for serial storytelling models.) Although I give PK and [info]dr_kromm a shout-out in the “Designer’s Notes” section, I should reiterate here how much fun I had poring through all the volumes of GURPS Monster Hunters and GURPS Action, making sure I’d covered everything they covered.

It’s not all lifts, by the way. I remain quite smugly proud of figuring out all the various rules for the various modes of play — Burn mode (emotional damage foregrounded), Dust mode (lo-fi gritty spy stories), Mirror mode (treason and betrayal), and Stakes mode (higher purpose). Every day and every way I grow slowly closer to Allen Varney’s amazing job on Paranoia. I’m also very happy with my solution to the “how to get the players to build an adversary map” (that pyramid of note cards, photographs, and string you see on every cop-procedural wall from The Wire on down), not least because my own players resisted doing it. Even the stuff I lifted from other games (like the Tactics from Chuck Wendig’s amazing job on Hunter: the Vigil, which became Tag-Team Tactical Benefits) I gave a mid-air twist before burnishing it into a GUMSHOE mechanic.

Bottom line, I think Night’s Black Agents has probably improved my actual nuts-and-bolts game design chops more than any project since the Decipher Star Trek RPG. (CODA was a much tighter design than ICON, in many ways, and I did a lot more auxiliary design work for it.) Also, it gave me an excuse to watch the Bourne trilogy any time I wanted to, or read Len Deighton novels and call it work.

What’s next? We’re kicking around an Armitage Files style campaign book for Night’s Black Agents, called The Dracula Dossier. It’s going to include the complete, unredacted text of Bram Stoker’s roman-a-clef Dracula, annotated by three generations of British Secret Service analysts. The goal is a vampire version of the Varo Edition, using the reader’s familiarity with the original novel to provide the jumping-off points that Robin had to dole out with serial Armitage letters. I’ll make [info]mytholder do all the heavy lifting, while I re-watch Tinker, Tailor and re-read Declare and call it work.

Odious Commercial Content Below!

The [REDACTED] edition costs about what the eventual hardcover will cost, and includes that hardcover with your name in the credits (when it comes out), the PDF of that hardcover (likewise), and the current bare-bones PDF of the nigh-complete ruleset (right now). Also, you will get a free adventure by [info]mytholder, so that’s nice. These pre-orders will (theoretically) fund the printing of a Smythe-sewn, full-color hardback book — we’re over halfway there, the last I knew — so if you have more money than patience (as [info]robotnik put it) you lose nothing but the interest on that $45 by popping for the [REDACTED] edition now.

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