by Adam Gauntlett
In Night’s Black Agents, Trust provides a modular system for tracking and modelling variable trust within a team of agents … Being trusted by a fellow agent lets you help her out in a pinch – or betray her far more effectively.
TRUCE, n. Friendship.
TRUTHFUL, adj. Dumb and illiterate.
TWICE, adv. Once too often. [Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary]
Some players, little cherubs that they are, like to scheme and betray. To recreate that old Le Carré magic, where nobody knows quite where anyone else stands, but everyone knows they’re going to get killed, or worse, if they guess incorrectly. Le Carré, you may recall, based a good deal of his own writing on his experiences with his con-man father, whose continual scheming and money woes scarred Le Carré’s childhood.
Fix that in your mind from the start: when using Trust, you’re playing a con game – a spy’s Big Store, where nothing is as it seems, and you might get the blow-off at any moment, forced to flee without so much as an empty satchel, once full of secrets, to your credit.
Mechanically, you start with 5 Trust points, and spread them around your fellow suckers – forgive me, your fellow agents. This might be in secret or out in the open, but if you’re playing Trust at all, it’s probably better done in secret. Those points can be spent as needed during play, either to help your comrade in a difficult moment, or to hinder them.
There are two unspoken assumptions in that statement. The first, scarcity. The second, benefit.
In order to spend points at all, there has to be opportunity to do so. There has to be a moment when somebody could really use a boost, or cannot afford to be betrayed. This implies they have no, or very few, Investigative or General points of their own – that points are scarce. Perhaps refreshes aren’t easily had, or the players are encouraged to spend points quickly in-game. That further implies that Difficulties tend to be high, and consequences for failure severe. Why spend points if the Difficulty stays at 4, or 3? Why spend points if failure isn’t painful?
Second, there has to be benefit. Or, as Bierce puts it:
CUI BONO? [Latin] What good would that do me?
When Fibber McGee spends Trust to help Molly interrogate a raving, Renfielded Wallace Wimple, Fibber isn’t doing that out of the kindness of his withered cinder of a heart. Fibber’s doing it because it benefits Fibber. Either getting Wimple to talk is in Fibber’s best interests, or it encourages Molly to put her Trust in Fibber – a mistake that could prove costly later, when Fibber uses those accumulated Trust points to destroy Molly.
All of which skirts round the biggest Trust issue of all – that Trust is about secrets, and therefore story. It’s right there in the opening sentence – this provides a modular system for tracking and modelling variable trust. A mechanic for expressing the consequences of story actions in-game. Trust means nothing without Story. As Director, you shouldn’t focus on Trust as a points mechanic. You should focus on Trust as a means of expressing Story. The points are there to help you do that, but Trust does not begin and end with a point spend.
Fibber might be secretly working for his ineffable, unknowable master, the Johnson Floor Wax Company. Molly might be an Edom mole. Wetworker Belulah might be helping one of Dracula’s Brides kill Dracula, so the Bride can take over the Conspiracy. Hacker and cracker Throckmorton P. Gildersneeve might have been secretly a CIA plant up till that failed break-in, where he was captured by Conspiracy goons and forced to turn to the other side, or die.
All of them have secrets, all of them have Story, and it is that Story they are trying to fulfil when they spend and receive Trust. When Fibber puts 1 point of Trust into Molly, it’s so he can use that Trust for Johnson Floor Wax. Because none of the crew can get what they want on their own, but each of them wants to be the last agent standing when the smoke clears.
For that reason, in a Trust game, players should specify their Story objective right at the start. That objective isn’t carved in stone, and can change in play, just as Gildersneeve changed allegiance from the CIA to the Conspiracy. However, the agent has to be true to their Story objective, as they understand it in the moment. So Fibber is always working for the greater good of Johnson Floor Wax, and if Johnson Floor Wax is actually a Conspiracy front, that doesn’t matter – at least, not until Fibber discovers The Hidden Truth, and has to make up his mind what to do about it. Up until that point, Fibber was being true to his objective, without realizing his objective was wrong-headed. Now he knows it’s wrong-headed, will he stay loyal to Johnson Floor Wax, or find a new Story?
Now, an example.
Fibber and the crew had to flee across national borders, after their last escapade ended in a flurry of explosions. They’ve all had a chance to rest and refresh pools, and Gildersneeve’s injuries have healed. Fibber, the bang-and-burner, has 3 points Trust in Molly, 2 in Belulah, and none anywhere else. Molly the black bagger has 3 in Fibber, 2 in Belulah, 2 in Gildersneeve – she’s been buying extras with experience points. The other team members have Trust investments as well, but for the purpose of this example they don’t affect play.
The wild card here is Gildersneeve. He’s working for the vampires now. That means he can’t be Betrayed; as an agent of dark powers, Gildersneeve expects to be betrayed by his fellow, human, agents. However, Gildersneeve can betray them, so Gildersneeve’s 7 points of Trust (like Molly, he used experience points to buy more) could prove toxic later on. It won’t, in this example – but the Director should remember ticking time bombs like these, because they have a nasty habit of going off when everyone least expects it.
Belulah, working for the Bride, may be in a similar position, but doesn’t have to be. Belulah’s player may know the truth, but Belulah the wetworker still believes she’s working for an elite and secretive band of Vatican vampire hunters. She has yet to discover that her contact, the Enigmatic Monsignor, spends his weekends licking blood from the Bride’s toes. So Belulah can still Betray and be Betrayed, as well as spend Trust to help her comrades.
Fibber and Molly have just come out of the interrogation room. Fibber spent some Trust to move the interrogation along, which helped Molly. Now they know where Wallace Wimple’s mistress in darkness, Sweetie-Face, is hiding. Fibber is all for staking the vamp as soon as possible. The team agrees, and begins to suit up.
That poses a problem for Molly. She knows what nobody else knows: Sweetie Face used to be Edom, and Sweetie Face knows all about Molly’s secrets. If she and Fibber are in the same room, the vampire will tell all, to save her neck – and that Molly cannot have.
She has to distract Fibber. It’s time for Betrayal.
It needn’t be a full-scale Dust-and-Ashes Betrayal – she just needs Fibber distracted, not wallowing in his own gore. However she does have those 3 points Fibber invested in her …
Betrayal can be used to harm or hamper Fibber, or to boost Molly in a conflict with Fibber. During the Betrayal scene, only Molly can use her MOS (not relevant in this particular example, but worth remembering), and Fibber can’t use the 3 points Molly invested in him. Any points Molly spends are gone forever; she’ll have to persuade Fibber to invest more, somehow.
Betrayal doesn’t have to be obvious, nor does it have to end with Molly zipping over the horizon in Fibber’s tricked-out BMW. All Molly needs is an opportunity to stick Fibber in the rear. She could Betray Fibber by using 1 point to warn Sweetie-Face. That could prove lethal later, when the agents move in on Edom’s former asset. Does Molly have other options?
“I’ll call my good buddy Rico Marcelli, the law enforcement bigwig and my Network contact,” says Fibber, “He’ll make sure there are no cops in that neighborhood when we make our move. That should keep our Heat down.”
“Rico’s dead, Fibber,” says Molly. “Looks like foul play!” She spends 2 points to make it so. Molly’s using Trust as an Investigative point spend – 1 for the basics, 2 for extra benefits. Molly’s getting as extra as she can.
“Dead!” Fibber’s aghast. “But there’s no way they could have known about Rico … unless …”
“Unless it’s a trap! We could be walking right into an ambush!” says Molly.
Now, the players can all see what just happened. They know, mechanically speaking, how Rico really got his – but mechanics aren’t Story. This is improv. They have to yes, and, just like the Director does. An alternative version would see Molly arranging all this in secret, with private Director conferences, or passing notes. That preserves the illusion of secrecy.
As the Betrayed, Fibber can’t prevent what just happened, and he certainly can’t spend Molly’s 3 points to Betray her in turn. He has to roll with the punches.
“We’d better investigate Rico’s murder first,” says Fibber. “If Conspiracy goons did him in, we need to know!”
Everybody smiles. There’s a dagger behind every toothy grin, of course, and Fibber’s already planning for the day when he can use Molly’s invested points to burn her down.
Still, everybody smiles.
Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.