By Kenneth Hite
THE DEXCON SANCTION(ED TOURNAMENT)
“I’d like you to be a Special Guest at DexCon.”
Vinny Salzillo had just bought me a sumptuous breakfast at the Cosmopolitan Hotel buffet in Las Vegas. Also, I wanted to go to DexCon. Also, I like Vinny.
“Sure.” I said.
“What event do you most want to run? Sky’s the limit.”
I most wanted to run my mouth, as is my habit at conventions. But this was DexCon, home of the Iron GM Regionals. The Space Marine Nationals. The place where gamers all over the tri-state area threw dice and threw down. So I stepped up.
“I want to run a Night’s Black Agents tournament. Single-elimination killbox, survivors go into a final scenario, compete to solve the conspiracy, everyone watching on live feed just like Obama in the war room when we whacked Osama.”
The sky, it would eventually transpire, was just a skoosh above the limit.
But in Vegas that morning, Vinny and I both believed we could make it happen, and Vinny said, “I’ll make it a prestige event. I’ll put up $1,000 for the winning team.”
And that is what he did, because Vinny is a mensch, and that is why DexCon sets records for attendance and fun and Most People In Loincloths In New Jersey. Maybe not the record for that last one.
I looked around for someone to do all the heavy lifting, and asked John Adamus, a local editor and writer I’d met at Vinny’s Metatopia convention last November, if he’d be interested in a lot of heavy lifting. I kind of thought he might, because he’s been running a killbox-full-of-Mirrors mode Night’s Black Agents campaign – “Tinker Tailor Vampire Die” — using the [REDACTED] edition rules for the last six or seven months. And providing beautifully cinematic Actual Play reports of it here, which you should definitely check out.
To come up with the big scheme, I asked my wife “What do vampires want?” She said, “Blood. Tasty, tasty blood.” This may seem obvious in retrospect, but it gave me the answer I’d been looking for: the vampires want to move from free-range to factory farming us. Since it was a convention game, I couldn’t get too weird with my Templars and my Soviet purges and my Third Man tribute riffs and all the other bananas Foster I put into games at home. Vampires want blood. That, we can do in a hotel function room.
I’m reluctant to give away too many more spoilers, because the stuff John and I came up with is so good I may use it in print. Or I may make John do all the heavy lifting again and make him use it in print.
But in general, it went like this: I wrote up my little outline of what the vampires want, and a notion of the final scenario that would (unless thwarted) accomplish it. Then I sketched out six preliminary scenarios, each lovingly tailored to a different intelligence agency. Each of them a variation on: “You’re in a thrilling location, doing something interesting, when a squad of Renfields bursts through the door.” Except for the one where the thrilling location was full of Renfields already.
Then I sent those notes to John, who promptly stripped out all the bananas Foster I’d put back in. And who tore out all the tailoring because – and this is the key – I’d managed to forget about the $1,000 prize. And the inherent screwiness of convention games. What we needed was not six delicately tuned Formula One cars. We needed six built-from-stock NASCAR scenarios, zero to killbox in ten seconds. We needed to make sure that any team could run any one of the adventures, and that we could get to the final adventure without all six preliminaries. In short, John saved the tournament from exploding before launch.
You can read more of what John had to do to make my notes into scenarios on his blog here. I recommend it, as pure a dissection of formalist RPG story crafting as you’ll find. John built 30 characters, six teams good to go. John built six scenarios, perfectly modular, and dripping with Renfields. That one scenario? The one you don’t know about, because we didn’t get to run it? He put even more Renfields in it. For another scenario, he invented a “spider-zotz” (with the face of Robert Wagner, or so I heard) just to chomp up the players’ John McClane fantasies of elevator shafts and air ducts.
Then, we had to run the thing. In one six-hour slot. Somehow, I’d dropped the ball on the timing, and we had potentially seven games to run in six hours. We needed, in the immortal words of Rusty in Ocean’s 11 (another great inspiration for Night’s Black Agents, structurally at least), “one more guy.”
Bill “The Big Hoodoo” White saved our bacon at the last minute when he agreed to spend his Saturday running two killboxes for us. And believe me, this guy was in demand at DexCon. People risked hypothermia to play in his New World games, which were held at Ganakagok temperatures. (One room at DexCon gets all the air conditioning.)
Now, it was up to the players. We had 24 sign-ups for 30 slots on Friday night. On Saturday, we had 16 players show up and sign in: John had provided sign-up sheets for the six teams, of course. (The MI6 team worknames were all actors who had played James Bond. The CIA team included Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, and Sydney Bristow. The Mossad team were all Jewish feminists. You know.) A quick huddle, and we went with three teams: the CIA team, the IMF team, and “the Italians” whose worknames came from art history and video games indiscriminately. (“Sean Connery,” from MI6, was seconded to the CIA team.) That meant only three killboxes. John had saved us again, because any team could run any adventure.
John took the CIA team through “Die Hard in an Italian Hotel With Vampires.” (Like I said, con game. Subtlety not required or desired.) Bill ran the IMF team through “Ship of Souls.” And I took “the Italians” through “Doctors Without Borders … Or Saviors.” Believe me, I ached to run “Weekend at Byron’s” instead. But we needed those doctor-y clues.
Especially, as it turned out, because Bill’s team sank the ship with the hostages (and all the clues) still on it. (Aaron Acevedo, as “Luther Stickel,” was sitting on a yacht watching a monitor. And thus he survived to the next round.) John’s team blew up the Italian hotel with vampires, with only Andrew Quigley (“Jack Ryan”) surviving in the security station.
And my team just would not die. I suspect I didn’t put in enough Renfields, but in my defense, the Italians were really quick on the minigun. Then they blew up the hospital. (In order to save it.) “Da Vinci” decides to lean over a string of grenades to kill a Renfield in the rubble: gets a 9 on his Athletics roll to jump free. They were Sensing Trouble left and right. Worse, they’d blown up the core clues, so we had to detour to a Tuareg village, where a Network contact could deliver the plot coupon in exchange for the Italians’ helicopter. I’ve found the hole in GUMSHOE: you may get core clues automatically in any other circumstance, but not if you’ve blown up the building they’re in and covered them with toxic, bloody rubble. By now we were running late, eating into the finale’s time. Fortunately, the clues led to an even kill-ier killbox. (Again, thank John. He took my vorthr and added two full vampires, six Renfields, and a room full of Russian ordnance to the mix.) Finally, they started dying; the scenario became a proper race against death to rescue the doctor, recover the laptop, and go go go.
Again, this was a convention scenario. I don’t recommend this mode for everyday play, not even in vampire spy thriller games. I found my natural GMing rhythms, which involve easing into dread, worked against me – I should have been going for adrenaline, not cold sweat. But in the event, it worked. Once I was combining a firefight with Renfields sneaking around in the hills killing player agents one by one – “I’m going to go see what happened to da Vinci” is something you just live in hope that a player will say – tension got properly tense. Ichor drained, thermobaric grenades detonated, a room full of Russian ordnance cooked off, and Lisa Padol’s agent “Vespucci,” the sole survivor, escaped with the rescued doctor and clue-bearing laptop. (Technically, agent “Caravaggio” also survived, full of vorthr ichor and growing thorns in his veins. “How far up my arms does the ichor go?” he asked, contemplating amputation and cauterization. “How far do your veins go?” I answered. We shared a moment of male dread as be we both pondered where veins do, in fact, go. This, I do recommend for everyday play.)
On to the finals. With, as it turned out, no live feed, but with lots of killed-off players watching from the sidelines, rooting for their team as the time on our room ticked down. (Some very, very kind-hearted LARPers let us keep using the space when we went 17 minutes over. I mentioned that DexCon gamers rule, right?) Here, we planned to put some scenes showing off GUMSHOE’s investigation rules, and the spy side of Night’s Black Agents. Which meant the pace dropped again. Again, I passed up a Renfield attack (which would have confused the story but added action) for a dream sequence (which slowed the story but added flavor and information). The vampires were waiting for the spies to move, but their plan succeeded if the spies did nothing – they weren’t eager to start a rumpus until they’d gotten their blood train flowing. (Oh, the train. Poor John wrote a lovely scenario solely to have a low-altitude drop onto a speeding train, and we didn’t run it. That one, we could probably make John publish as a standalone adventure, actually.) So I started showing the vampires’ hand – alleged Secret Service agents who didn’t show up on camera. Room service out of nowhere. Creepy journalists. That kind of thing. Pushing just a bit. Easing, like I say, into dread.
And the players snapped. They swapped out the doctor for an impostor, in grand IMF style. “Jack Ryan” (channeling every single Harrison Ford role simultaneously) seduced the doctor and threw her into a swimming pool. Not simultaneously. To save the impostor, “Vespucci” stabbed a Renfield with a silver knife stolen from the hotel safe. (“That Infiltration test won’t be that straightforward,” I said. “MOS,” Lisa Padol said. “I guess it will be that straightforward,” I said. MOS moves the game along. Helpful GMing tip.) “Luther Stickel” arranged a car, threw the fire alarm, locked down the hotel, and everyone got out in the confusion. Unless the LARPers would give us the room for another two hours of vampire chases across Naples, the adventure was over.
“What was the ultimate vampire plan?” I asked.
I had the three survivors — Aaron, Andrew, and Lisa — each write down their answers on a sheet of paper. Aaron, remember, watched from a yacht as his scenario’s clues sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean. He wasn’t close. Andrew had it half right, but he guessed wrong about the doctor’s laptop. Lisa got it almost all right, and threw in some bananas Foster about ancient Carthage based on her dream sequence. She won, and the Italians split $1,000, and I suddenly had six hours of adrenaline drain out of my fingertips. We got burritos and John saved the day one last time by giving me a bottle of vodka. (You can see John’s version of the fateful day here.)
When Vinnie ran into me on Saturday night, after about half of the bottle of vodka had been sunk, he asked how it went.
I told him. In fewer words than this.
He said, “I want to make DexCon the home of the Night’s Black Agents National Tournament finals next year. And every year.”
I really hope John Adamus has some more good ideas.
Huge thanks to Vinny, John, and Bill, without whom, etc. Huge thanks to Simon, Beth, and Wade – and Avy at DexCon, I suspect — for getting Night’s Black Agents postcards into the hands of every DexCon attendee. Huge thanks to those kindly LARPers, for those crucial 17 minutes.
And finally, huge thanks to the players:
THE TEAM THAT SET THE AMMO DUMP ON FIRE (“The Italians”)
Director: Kenneth Hite
Operation: Doctors Without Borders … OR SAVIORS
Lisa Padol (survivor)
THE TEAM THAT SANK THE SHIP WITH THE HOSTAGES STILL ON IT (“The IMF”)
Director: Bill White
Operation: The Ship of Souls
Aaron Acevedo (survivor)
THE TEAM THAT BLEW UP THE HOTEL IN ORDER TO SAVE IT (“The CIA”)
Director: John Adamus
Operation: Die Hard in an Italian Hotel With Vampires
Andrew Quigley (survivor)
THE TEAM THAT RAN AWAY
Director: Kenneth Hite
Operation: Showdown at the Spa
Lisa Padol (the winner!)
If you don’t mind spoilers, you can read Lisa Padol’s version of the day here.