Night’s Black Agents has a couple of special Abilities that help players to emulate the tangled networks and cover stories of the spy genre.
Cover represents the carefully-constructed false identities that each agent has built up over the years across the globe. Every player starts with at least 10 points of Cover, so nobody goes into a fresh campaign without this useful feature. Cover identities are not defined ahead of time; instead, you may permanently move any number of Cover points into a cover identity during play to say that you had this identity all along. The more points you put into the cover pool of that identity, the deeper and well-established the cover is. If you have 8 or more in the Disguise ability, you can even create a connected cover identity that is a known associate of an NPC. Also, with every cover identity you define, you can link it to a familiar city so that you get easier rolls when making your way around or trying to source for black market goods in that city.
Network represents the many contacts and allies that your agent has made around the world. Every player starts with a minimum of 15 Network. Similar to Cover, you can spend Network to create new contacts any time during a game. The more points you put into a contact, the more well-connected that person is. You can call upon the contact as an information source, depending on whether or not the Director feels it is an appropriate source of clues, or for various favours, from getting access to the secret Vatican archives to calling in Carabinieri helicopters to evacuate you from a sinking ferry in the Bay of Naples.
The drawback for both cover identities and Network contacts is while you get tremendous flexibility in defining them in play, they get used up permanently whenever they are tested. When your cover is tested by going through a security check, or when your contact pulls strings to do a favour for you, you need to roll against a difficulty that is usually determined by the current level of security or scrutiny that you need to bypass. Players will find that it may not be that easy to simply burn through their cover identities and contacts when it costs Experience Points just to replenish their points. Plus, I’ve found that while some players are more than willing to use up a contact and toss them aside, others will invest even more points in a favourite NPC just to keep the Director from killing them off once their usefulness is ended!
GUMSHOE, created by Robin D. Laws, is a lean mean roleplaying system that streamlines and focuses investigative adventures. It makes the players and the Director all feel a lot smarter. There is no need for the Director to fudge rolls or rules, and no time is wasted on dead ends, failed investigation rolls and players getting stuck.
In a Night’s Black Agents
game, there are two kinds of Abilities measuring an Agent’s skills and talents:
- General Abilities. These are used to Do Important Stuff, like blasting vampires with assault rifles, driving cars through fences and tailing minions through crowded train stations. You roll dice and see if you succeed or fail at a General Ability.
- Investigative Abilities. These are used to Find Out What There Is To Do. These Abilities cover tapping a corrupt Russian general’s phone, searching university archives for books on vampire lore, and seducing the general’s chauffeur. You never roll dice for Investigative Abilities.
The real power of GUMSHOE comes from Investigative Abilities, which every Agent has in abundance. These Abilities are used to get clues and find out where the bad guys are, what they are doing, and ways to stop them.
As long as you get yourself into a scene where relevant information can be gathered, have one of the right Abilities to get that information, and tell the Director you are using that Ability, you always succeed
in getting a clue. At the very least, a core clue that leads to another important scene/character/location where there are more clues or Important Stuff To Do.
Also, you can expend Investigative Ability points to get additional information, such as weaknesses of the enemy, or to get temporary bonuses in a tactical situation. That's where the rest of the detailed rules come in.
But you never need to spend any points to get core clues. You only need to have a score of 1 or more in that Ability rating.
It's the same rule system that powers games like Trail of Cthulhu
. It helps the Director to ensure that players Find Out What There Is To Do in a simple and fun way, and then Do Important Stuff, like shooting magnesium flares through the window of Dracula's limousine.
And that's why you should play Night's Black Agents
- the Director
My group speaks a bunch of different languages. English, Malay and Chinese are all common languages in Malaysia, which is a pretty multi-ethnic country.
Now, all the RPGs that are brought in to Malaysia are English-language, so most gaming here tends to be in English anyway, although some GOKL gaming groups mix it up a bit (I recently sat in on an Ironclaw game where the GM and one of the players played out a conversation in Chinese to simulate two characters conversing in the Jadeclaw language, which was pretty cool). I like to think that our group’s multi-lingual nature gives us a broader appreciation of how different languages affect the way you look at the world and how they create bridges and barriers between people.
Which brings me to how languages are treated in Night’s Black Agents. This is a game about pursuing international vampire conspiracies, focused mainly on Europe. If you want a true James Bond experience, you need to visit exotic cities, mingle with beautiful people of various races and nationalities, and order vodka martinis in several different languages.
In other games, there are different ways of handling this. In D&D 3rd edition, you need a high Intelligence. In D&D 4th edition, you need to spend valuable feat slots. Of course, in both games, a little bit of magic solves the language problem. In Robin D. Laws’ classic Feng Shui, which emulates Hong Kong action movies, everyone speaks Cantonese*, no matter which country or time juncture they come from. In many other games, you need to spend valuable skill points. In Trail of Cthulhu, another GUMSHOE game, you gain one language for every point you put into the Languages ability.
In Night’s Black Agents, the author wants all your spies to be absolutely brilliant with languages. Everyone gets to be a hyper-linguist: you get two languages for free (English and one other). For the first point you put into the Languages ability, you get two more languages. After that, the game follows a law of growing returns. For the second point you put in, you get three more languages. Every point above that is worth four languages.
I think that this is terrific. It encourages our agents to run around Europe haggling with smugglers, seducing diplomats and cussing at vampires in all kinds of languages. Our current cast of Agents speaks English, Finnish, Swedish, Russian, Japanese, Romanian, Dutch, German, Serbo-Croat and Bosnian. They’ve bounced from England to Denmark to Sweden to Denmark to Sweden to Denmark to Sweden to Denmark again in the course of just the last three sessions, with a couple of team members making a little detour through France and Germany. And because of the game’s extremely liberal language allowance, most of the players probably have one or two unassigned languages to help the team handle the next country their conspiracy hunt will take them to.
This might not be such a big deal for some gamers. For others, it just means that your players will start posting random Google Translate queries for the location of the restroom on your Facebook page (I’m still not sure what all that Finnish and Swedish word salad is supposed to mean, guys). But I for one appreciate that this little piece of design makes our player characters that much more competent. It ties into the theme of GUMSHOE RPGs being about smart, capable and intelligent investigators who always have at least some useful skills, no matter what the situation. Even the toughest bruiser has as many Investigative Ability points as someone who’s meant to be an academic sort.
And it’s always fun to play an agent who can be suave in English, French, Russian and Arabic, all in one session.
- the Director
* with English subtitles.
Something I wanted to point out to my players, based on a discussion with Ivan:
Don't feel obligated to spend all your Cover and Network points right away on covers and contacts that you think up for your character. Not yet.
You can assume you have lots of irrelevant covers too, just for flavour. You only need to spend points on the ones that have to pass a security screening, during the actual session.
Same goes for Network contacts. You might have lots of irrelevant idiots you know all over the place. Just spend points on the ones who will actually end up being useful for operations.
If you've created cover identities and network contacts already, you can take back the points from them first. They only come into play once you actually draw upon them to use against the enemy. That's when the number of points on them becomes an issue. Don't worry, I'm flexible when it comes to this kind of thing.
- the Director