The Night’s Black Agents book is big, heavy and beautiful, but it can be intimidating to new GMs. The Night’s Black Agents game is a pulse-pounding thrill ride, pursued by vampires. How can we get from the big book to spy action, when the players are new, and you’ve never run NBA at a convention before? You can get away with a few holes in your system knowledge if you know the adventure really well, or hand-wave the adventure a little if you’ve mastered the system.
Bluffing the System
System-wise, at the very minimum, you should know the rudiments of GUMSHOE, both the Investigative side and the General ability side.You’ve run it for your home group. You need to know what a Test is, what a Spend is, the combat and chase rules and, surprisingly important, the use of Preparedness. If you don’t know these basics, the game is like to be uncomfortable for you, and confusing for your players.
First snag and read Kevin Kulp’s guide, and read the summaries in this article.
Offloading Onto Your Players
The biggest system cheat for the GM in a convention game is to offload some work onto players as fun options – in NBA these include the Thriller Combat Options and Stability tests- you can download these here. This has some useful effects:
- You don’t have to know all those rules. The rules are generally bite-sized choices or adjustments the players can use. You just need to know the results – and they’ll tell you.
- You have less to worry about during the game. If someone else is determing when Stability tests are made, you have time for other things.
- Players who care about those options will use them. Those who don’t, won’t. If no one wants to use them, no one will miss them.
- Looking at these sheets is a great displacement activity for players when they aren’t currently doing anything.
Most import of all, you need to understand the basics of combat, not because you’ll necessarily need to spend a lot of time in combat in the game, but because combat needs to be fast and thrilling. You should always know whose go it is, whether a test hits or not, and what your monsters can do. But combat is pretty straightforward in GUMSHOE.
- At the outset, ask everyone what ability they are using in combat (usually Weapons or Shooting) and what its rating (not pool) is. Characters and their foes act in decreasing order of that initial rating for the rest of the combat. List them.
- To try to hit an opponent, make a test (d6 + point spend) against their Hit Threshold (almost always 3 or 4). Spend points from the combat pool before rolling. If you match or beat the Hit Threshold, you hit – roll the damage listed on your character sheet. There is no dodging. Players who have read the Thriller Combat sheet may offer spends here – nod sagely and let them.
- Players can spend Investigative pointss in combat with suitable narration to get a +3 bonus on combats Tests (Military Science, Intimidate, Streetwise are good examples of these spends).
- When it’s your go, you make the same test againts the PCs Hit Threshold, but you really don’t have to spend the points to be certain of a hit unless you are playing a true bad-ass or a glass cannon. Roll openly, and tell them what you are spending. You can also consider the option of replacing attack pools with bonuses (no one cares about the GM’s record keeping). So, +1 for minor foes, +2 for scary opponents, and +3 for the real nasties.
Most NBA games include a chase – perhaps roof-top parkour, or smart cars smashing through stalls at a local market. The summary and track is available in the rules summary.
Before you start – determine the chase ability (usually Driving or Athletics) and put the lead counter on the track at 5 .
- GM and players secretly decide their spend from the chase pool, which they then reveal. Players can narrate the use Investigative abilities here! Without a point spend, adjust a Chase Difficulty test by one; with a spend, increase the pursuers’ or pursueds’ chase pool by 3 per point.
- Both parties make a test against a Difficulty of 4.
- Compare the results of the pursuer and the pursued:
- Both fail or succeed – lead adjusts by one in the direction of the victor.
- One fails, one succeeds – lead adjusts by two in the direction of the victor.
- Narrate the outcome, asking for player input.
- If there is any combat, it goes here. The Hit Threshold is usually increased by 1 in a chase, and anyone directly involved in the chase (running or driving) needs to spend 3 points from the chase pool.
- If the lead narrows to zero, the pursuer has caught up without a doubt; if the lead increases to 10, the pursued have escaped.
Keep it simple – one chance in the adventure to rest up and refresh three General pools when they’ve had a fight or chase and appear to be gasping for points. They can of course use Shrink (to get Stability back) and Medic (for Health), too. If anyone spots the Technothriller Monologue option, let them use it.
Preparedness allows players to model their characters’ competence, without themselves knowing how to be a spy. It also shortcuts lengthy planning meetings, and gives players a fallback in emergencies. This is how it’s used.
- Make a test to have something relatively unusual you haven’t mentioned.
- If you have a rating 8+ allows you to have all ready done something you describe in flashback. If the action requires another test by you or another player (for example, Explosives or Conceal) you need to make that too, afterwards. You can have planted a bomb, swiped a key card, hacked a security system, sabotaged a car, bribed a guard…
Rules You can Take or Leave
Piggybacking and Cooperation These are pretty useful and very simple. If someone is sneaking into a building, or climbing, or any other task where one PC takes the lead, the other PCs spend one point each to stay with them. With cooperation, multiple PCs can contributed to a test, but you need to spend a point to contribute. Flag this up if you remember it and a suitable occasion arises.
Network is are pretty easy to explain, but don’t worry about the mechanics too much – just suggest if they need a hand, look at their network list. If you want the players to have more narrative control – just say “do you know someone who can help you?” If they ask them to do a whole lot, warn them they might get killed, burned, or turn coat. If you are using Network, restrict the pool to five at the most – in a full game, this rating cannot be refreshed, and is too much for a one-shot (hattip Gareth)
Cover in a convention game, this is effectively the same as Disguise – the long-term consequences of not having a solid ID are unlikely to arise. If someone wants to have multiple covers, just like the characters in Burn Notice, let them do it. Limit the pool to five or so.
Cherries – these should be marked on and detailed on character sheets, and be self-explanatory. Check the pregens first and make sure they are – or look them up if necessary. Don’t introduce them if they aren’t there.
MOS – one ability you can always succeed at once in a session? Simple enough. If you use these, and they aren’t pre-detmerined, let your players decide on this when you hand out the characters. They should all chose a different one.
I wouldn’t bother with Heat, Safe House and Haven rules, Special Tactical Benefits, and the of minutiae of all the equipment in a convention game.
Night’s Black Agents adventures tend to be more player-led than other GUMSHOE games, and this makes it both easier and more difficult to run. In an ideal world, you will have run it for your group before, but often for conventions, you just get handed something on the day. I find it helpful to sketch out a diagram of how scenes are connected, and punch down into the abilities and the set up of any fights or chases, or if any more unusual rules come up. Monster stats are really straightforward in GUMSHOE – but take a close look at any supernatural abilities so your vampires are competent and scary. I find two passes through a convention-length adventure – two 30 minute slots – does the basic job. In play, though, if the players are having fun, you are on the right track.
Introducing the Game
Open by telling them they are bad-ass spies, and that they are supremely competent at what they do.
Explain the basics – how Investigative and General abilities work. If anyone who is used to rolling dice to get information expresses puzzlement, tell them to play exactly as they always do when asking to use an Investigative ability. Explain that any Investigative ability can be used to get a +3 bonus on a General ability per one point spend – use Architecture to get you an Infiltration bonus when breaking into a building, or Intimidation to get the drop on someone in a fight. Tell them you will suggest spends, but it’s better they do! Let them know they don’t have to memorize any of this stuff – you’ll remind them in play. Direct them to the GUMSHOE 101 player sheet.
They know how spy thrillers work – ask What Would Jason Bourne Do? The Night’s Black Agent’s character sheets and its abilities are a cheat sheet in themselves for playing a spy thriller. Abilities such as Infiltration, Forgery and Tradecraft and the meat of the spy genre, tell them to use them, and you’ll make it your job to ensure they get the chance.
It’s a convention game. Tell them to try anything, spend points recklessly and see what happens. Let them know they should try anything they’ve seen in a spy movie, and you will tell them how.
Don’t spend much time planning One of the big problems with spy games can be planning inertia, so tell about Preparedness – the actual mechanic can wait. Their characters will know what to do, even if they don’t, and if they do get bogged down in an extended planning scene, remind them of Preparedness, and show them evidence that if they don’t get moving, they’ll be the hunted.
Stay one step ahead, or danger will come to you. Hunkering down is always a bad idea. Spies stay ahead of their opponents. Your ability to collect information on your opponents, subvert and surprise them are your greatest weapons.
Handing Out Characters
Offer them characters filled in apart from their names, Drives and Sources of Stability (and MOS if it’s not marked and you are using it). Mention that combat-oriented characters have more options in a fight, if they want to take them.
These elements are a short cut to characterisation. Leave a few spare points for a floating pool (say 3) they can assign to any ability on the fly during the game. The characters sheets, along with the handouts, should tell them all the mechanics they need to play their specific characters, including special abilities, weapon damage etc, so they don’t have to look through books. Unless you want in-game paranoia (you are playing a Mirror game, perhaps) tell them they know each other and have worked together, so they are a team as much as spies can be.
At this point ask for a volunteer to keep an eye on whether PCs should make a Stability test – they need flag up if anyone should make a test. There’ll always be one player who is willing to do this, usually a GM; it’s one less thing for you to worry about, and they are usually stricter than you would be! You’ll probably need to remind them the first time.
Offer the Thriller Combat option sheets in the player handouts I created (or even these cards) – note who takes them and who doesn’t. Tell them they have to be ready when it’s their turn to use one of those options. This will help when running combats. Likewise, point the Chase options out to the character with the ability which will be used in the chase in the adventure.
By now, your players should be fired up and ready to go, and so should you. The rest is up to you!