Night’s Zak Agents

So last weekend I flew to Los Angeles to run Night’s Black Agents for artist and game designer (Vornheim is amazing) Zak S, impresario and writing mind behind the terrifically interesting and useful old-school game blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars. The idea being to run a new-school RPG for Zak and, well, porn stars. Zak, I should mention at this juncture, lives in Hollywood in a 1920s apartment complex straight out of Tim Powers (who he’s never read — I know), which added not a little to the louche atmosphere. I almost expected Sternberg to show up.

As it was, only two porn stars showed up, Zak himself and his girlfriend Mandy Morbid; porn stars being unsurprisingly hard to wrangle. (Think of trying to get your own game group together for an out-of-schedule game. Now assume your game group primarily comprises very attractive women who live in Los Angeles and have better things to do. Satine had to go to a marathon showing of all three Lord of the Rings movies, for instance. So, not so different, really.) So we filled out the roster with more mundanely employed players, of agent WALTHER and, via Google+ hangout, agent REILLY.

So, game group assembled, I ran a new demo-scale four-hour scenario tentatively called The Bratislava Rendition, and it went over smashingly well. The players had already created characters, but hadn’t really been checked out on the rules; we did a bit of learn-by-doing investigation that conveyed the fundamentals of GUMSHOE to everyone; time constraints meant a prelude firefight in Syria had to be cancelled, but people picked up on the combat system pretty fast, too.  I managed to lose track of my own dhampir in the fracas, but no worries: Zak brought him back for the sequel!

Yes, in a spate of enthusiastic ludic madness, Zak decided he’d try his own hand at running a sequel adventure to mine the next day. Fortunately(?) Zak’s character Milosz had died during the first adventure, so we only had to replace REILLY with another Google+ hangouter, Mandy’s sister agent KAMINSKI. I built a French DNRED agent and former paratrooper and we tracked the sinister vampire conspiracy from Bratislava to Fitzrovia, where they had captured REILLY. It turned out the CIA were not just liars, but vampire-infiltrated liars, which came as very little surprise to any of us.

Zak’s take on the GUMSHOE system was a good deal more constrained than mine, with a few mechanical changes; when I explained that the goal of the “never fail” system was not just to advance the story but to make players feel confident and powerful, his old-school D&D instincts emerged in a savage grin and something like the phrase “Not on my watch, they don’t.” So the Fitzrovia adventure was more claustrophobic but still strong: Zak’s old-school instincts also led to a veritable sandbox of encounters and clues well suited to driving spy-sequel play. By the firefight at the end, players were using the full menu of Thriller Combat Options as though born to them; I introduced nothing, and explained (under Zak’s watchful eye) the power-gaming potential of these marvellous toys as WALTHER and Mandy dug them out of the books. In the end, Mandy killed the weaselly CIA-Hungarian fascist-dhampir with a Technothriller Monologue (and a clip of gold-jacketed bullets bought with the last of her Preparedness points) and we lived to fight again another day.

Zak has posted his own version of the weekend’s games, combining as is his wont delightful Actual Play reporting and strong, focused meditation on game design as it intersects with game play. For this kind of response to my game, and for his delightful hospitality and GMing, and for his recommendation of the fantastic John Banville novel The Untouchable (a superb roman-a-clef of Cambridge spy/art critic Anthony Blunt) all thanks and praise to Zak; many thanks to the other players, regardless of stardom; thanks to Simon for funding this particularly avant-garde exercise in guerrilla marketing; also, thanks to Christian Lindke (why not thank him yourself by buying Cthulhu Claus Holiday Cards this season?) for driving me from LAX to Chez Zak and back via the amazing house-cured pastrami at The Oinkster in Eagle Rock.

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