Sometimes, there are games that just don’t click at first, for whatever reason.
For example, I remember years ago at a convention demoing Give Me The Brain to a group of congoers, which isn’t exactly Advanced Squad Leader in terms of complexity. Yet there was one person I was demoing to that would not get it. Eventually he started taking notes on how the game went, to which he’d consult on every turn. Yet despite these extra steps and general confusion, he still enjoyed the game.
What does this have to do with a review? Well, the GUMSHOE system was that game for me. I love the idea of an RPG that puts investigation to the forefront and is built around mysteries, and placing those kinds of mysteries in a variety of genres. I bought one of the last deluxe Trail of Cthulhu books at Gen Con years ago, and ended up with a few more GUMSHOE-powered games. And yet, the game play was impenetrable to me from the text.
I’m pretty sure it’s not a problem with the text, or organization, or any of that. There was just something to the game that wouldn’t sink in.
Despite not being able to sink into GUMSHOE,and despite multiple attempts to jump into a demo of it at conventions and failing, I took on a review copy of Night’s Black Agents. Early buzz was positive, and the elevator pitch of a game where you play super spies opposing a conspiracy of vampires (is conspiracy the mass noun of vampires?) was highly appealing, and before I even opened the book, I could see how GUMSHOE would couple with spy thriller.
Well, I finally got a chance to play Night’s Black Agents thanks to one of my favorite GMs running it at a recent convention. Much more has clicked. And unsurprisingly, the game is great.
On Her Majesty’s Staking Service
- As mentioned, it’s a version of the GUMSHOE system, meaning that the focus is on investigation, but tuned with a spy bent, which means lots of various skills from electronic surveillance to interrogation to flirting. It also cranks up the action, injecting the system with rules for high-speed chases, gunplay, extreme parkour, and more. However…
- It’s contains many options, so you can tune your campaign to the feel you enjoy best. Choose the level of cinematic-ness (if I can use that as a word) so as best to match the kind of spy movie you want to play. Additionally, there’s a lot on choosing your own vampires, and what that entails. Deftly tying together centuries of vampire myths in a smorgasbord of background, abilities, and weaknesses, the book allows you to decide if your vampires are grounded in religion, mystical creatures, aliens, or mutants. You can also choose to customize them as much as you want, so that your team discovers that a cross really does nothing but garlic on the other hand…
- There’s also a variety of vampire hench-creatures, from the deranged to the mythical. However, the focus stays on vampires, so it never veers off into full World of Darkness “everything is out there” territory.
- As is typical for a Kenneth Hite book, it’s extensively researched. You’ll find plenty not just about vampires, but also how intelligence agencies operate, the different kind of agents on a team, international intelligence operations, and various locales with which to oppose the vampire conspiracy.
- Vampire conspiracy, you say? The book walks you through how to make you own, which conveniently, is also an overall campaign structure, with plenty of advice on how to build and reveal it as you play. I’m a big fan of mechanized tools to build campaigns easily, and the “conspyramid” does the job admirably.
The Spy Who Bit Me
An overview of GUMSHOE for those, like me, who never quite were able to wrap their head around it or otherwise have never played it:
- It’s a skill-based system, so most of what your character can do is expressed via skills they possess, plus a few extra more core abilities including Health and Stability (some of which is more customizable depending on what you want your game to be about.) You have two kinds of abilities: investigative and general.
- Investigative abilities are those that drive the story and allow you to unravel the mystery. If you have a particular investigative skill, and you declare you’re using an applicable one while investigating, you succeed and get a clue based on how you were investigating. For example, you never roll to see if you pull information off a stolen hard drive (and potentially fail), you just declare that’s what you’re doing with your Data Recovery skill. You’ll then find the information, but how you choose to use that information is up to you. It’s about putting those clues together: “These emails came from Moscow, but why are the Russians involved?” Sometimes, there’s also a chance to score an exceptional result by declaring you’re spending from your limited pool. Not only do you trace the email, you discover an important password.
- Your general abilities are where your operational, pass/fail skills live: fighting, shooting, running, driving, blow stuff up, all those important skills that are part of the spy life. This is the part that was surprising to me reading through the book, how crunchy and indepth each of these skills are. There are various bonuses and options based on some of these skills being high, which complicate play and character creation a bit, but definitely satisfy that urge for extra rules for masterful characters.
- Of course, you also get the basics of what you need to play a spy game: rules for firefights, hand-to-hand battles, chases, and so on. These rules rely upon your general skills, and also spending from pools to help you succeed at the task at hand. So you can help your important rolls succeed, but also requires a balancing act of resource management to make sure you won”t spend yourself out before the big confrontation.
Ultimately, the core is easy to play, especially when you see it in action. It’s helped- like nearly all RPGs- by playing with a GM who knows the rules inside and out. Within a few scenes (especially with a game that started with several of our agents falling out of a plane without a parachute), I had the basics down. However, the various skill rules, “cherries,” and other details in the book would take a while for me to absorb. To put it more simply: the basic play of the game is easy once you see it, the entire game as described is more complicated.
The Man With the Garlic Gun
There’s a lot of other sections that make Night’s Black Agents a complete package. There’s backgrounds that are options for character creation that also help inform you about various agent specialties. There’s a section on tools of the spy trade AND possible vampire-hunting devices. There’s plenty of GM advice in how to structure a mystery, though there’s also plenty of player advice on how to run a trained agent- the kind of advice that’s often lacking in RPGs. Cities give the GM plenty of places to send the globe-hopping agents, along with the lowdown on the existing intelligence agencies there, as well as other groups that may become involved in the vampiric-affairs. There’s a sample adventure that could kick off a campaign, and plenty of reference materials.
It’s also very important to note that the entire book oozes (bleeds?) with flavor. Dark and red hues form much of the book’s color scheme. The art exudes atmosphere. Little background touches emphasize the spy genre set against the unremitting dark. There’s even a variety of helpful sidebars, including various “director’s commentary” notes that are in a more casual tone.
You Only Unlive Twice
The book has so many things I like about well put-together RPG books: strong, focused hook, well put-together rules, good setting with background, lots of reading material that can be used for any kind of campaign. So what was the block?
Well, as noted, the GUMSHOE system as a whole can take some adjustment in the first place, since adventures are structured so differently than your typical D&D fare. As the gamer in my group who usually takes on learning a new games, I tend to need to grasp both the GM side and the player side, and that just wasn’t happening before. Playing the game with an experienced GM helped fit that half, at least.
Additionally, this is a dense book. All those options for tuning the game for desired cinematic-level add an extra layer to process while trying to read the book and learn the game. There’s also a lot of smaller exceptions to the rules that are embedded within the descriptions of various abilities that can affect other pieces, which adds to the amount of cross-referencing, making the whole thing a bit heavier than you might expect. Those all combined, along with my previous failures to grok GUMSHOE, to make the game muddled, which is why it has taken me since last August to write this review, even under pressure of bone-crushing.
Those aspects might not bother you at all. There are certainly much more complicated games out there, and as long as you get the basics down, you’ll have enough to get going and then just reference more as you go. You might also run into the same issues that I did, in which case you might want to try getting into a session at a convention first before picking it up.
However, if you ever wanted to play James Bond beating the crap out of Dracula, you’re never going to find a better game for it than this.