Review: Night’s Black Agents

Commentary Badass Gumshoe System Review Spies

BoardGameGeek’s “Golden Geek” awards are open for votes, and this year I’m interested to see how the “Best RPG” category shakes out. I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of games I’ve purchased this year end up on the list, and decided it was high time to begin to read some of them, should I ever hope to play them.

Night’s Black Agents, available now from Pelgrane Press

I’ll begin with Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents, a game about spies and vampires. I purchased this after hearing an interview with Kenneth Hite on the award-winning podcast “Role Playing Public Radio.” I knew I had to get the game when I heard his motivation for making it. To paraphrase, the author is sick of emo vampires, and wanted to explore stories of badasses who kill vampires.

What’s more badass than a super spy?

That question, by the way, is not rhetorical; what’s more badass is a burned super spy. And that’s what Kenneth Hite’s game focuses on: teams of (mostly) burned spies who have discovered that vampires indeed exist, as does a vast conspiracy to hide this fact. Today, I’ll tell you some of my initial reactions, go over what works well and what’s still sticking, and conclude with a recommendation. Spoiler alert: I’m going to recommend that you join me in purchasing this book.

Initial Reactions

The game definitely lives up to what it promises. The book is full of spy lingo, giving the reader a “badass by osmosis” approach to the world of Bourne-style spies. The first half of the book primarily focuses on agents and how they work; the “vampire conspiracy” seems almost incidental. Then you get to the “vampires” chapter, and the mashup starts swinging in full force.

Night’s Black Agents uses the Gumshoe system, which I had neither read nor played before. I’m not sure if this game represents the best first exposure to that system, but I’ll say more on that later.

Readers may remember my piece on collaboratively creating a game setting from a few weeks ago. I had the setting discussed in that article in mind as I read this book. Initially, initially, I thought it unfair to place a “cold war spy game with aliens” rubric on a “post-9/11 badaass superspies with vampires” game in a review context. However, as I thought on it more, I realized that many gamers don’t run campaigns in their intended setting, so keeping a games adaptability in mind seems fair.

What Works

Seriously, I feel more badass for having read the book. It evokes the “guns are cool” vibe even in the heart of this pacifist. The writing is in a terse, matter-of-fact tone that  only furthers the urgency of the mission of characters in this game. Examples- both vivid descriptions of gameplay and open-ended parenthetical statements- help a potential game master imagine how to build thrills in a vampire-hunting spy adventure.

What impresses me most is the “investigation” end of the game. I’m not sure if this is characteristic of all Gumshoe games, but in Night’s Black Agents, investigation always works. None of this “you didn’t find the clue so I guess you’re stuck” nonsense for these superspies; each has investigative abilities that enable them to find essential clues. The mechanics help some investigations work better, and character design helps the “investigation story” have a wide variety of flavors to choose from, but this bold move in game design is refreshing.

Hite consistently steers the reader to story over mechanics, calling attention to places where rules might threaten to get in the way and providing insights of how to dodge those bullets. Similarly, he takes a practical tone in urging players away from simulation and towards “action movie.”  This is best exemplified in a sidebar on machine guns and how to make them thematically effective rather than “saw a man in half” realistic.

Although the game takes a post 9/11 tone, I didn’t find many obstacles to retrofitting this game onto (say) a cold-war era setting. The tech is different, as are some of the major political players, but it seems largely a matter of choice if you don’t mind re-imagining the Bond series using a Bourne-type spy. The versatility of vampires also pleased me: there’s room for Nosferatu, Cthulhu, or evil bloodsucking aliens. If you’re looking for sexy brooding vampires, though, this is the wrong game.

I appreciated the section of this book on psychological stresses. Hite includes a sidebar explaining that this section is intended for dramatic storytelling in the game, and not intended to trivialize the diseases ostensibly described in the chapter. This introduction helped me imagine how to use the rules for psychological distress rather than get stuck on thinking about people who have such difficulties in real life, which would have sucked.

Finally, Hite deserves a special place in Paradise for providing GMs with invaluable tools as appendices to this book. From charts for helping keep track of character abilities to a brilliant node-based system for generating a conspiracy, this book alone provides ample tools for getting started using your own materials.

What I’m Tripping On

First off, a rant on the cover: I’m getting really sick of games I feel like I have to hide from my four year old, let alone my wife. The image on the cover of this book is needlessly frightening, and disconcertingly jarring in its style. The interior artwork of this book is stellar, and doesn’t seem to fit at all with the cover art. Honestly, if I had come across this book in a used book store without having heard of it, the cover would have kept me from picking it up off the shelf. The cover of The Zalozhniy Quartet, a supplement to Night’s Black Agents, matches the artwork of the game and depicts the theme of the game quite well without being “hide under the bed” material.” I’m hoping that RPG publishers start a trend to move away from shock and gore in game artwork.

That aside, I don’t have too many stark criticisms of the game, so instead of saying “what doesn’t work,” I’ll highlight the “exposed roots” that threaten to catch my feet in this game.

As brilliant as the investigation system is, reading about virtually mandatory field skills disappointed me. If every character in this game needs to use guns and dodge bullets, why bother creating skills for those? Perhaps a desire for some characters to be expert markspersons instead of just “good with guns” justifies this, but I’m always turned off when I read a skills section that tells me my character will be useless unless I take skills x, y, and z.

Also on skills, in order to make investigations “always work,” the skills for investigation are mechanically separated from “field work” skills. I believe this will result in the effect of games having “investigation scenes” and “action scenes.” This isn’t wholly problematic, but I do struggle to understand how to implement scenes like the iconic “Mission Impossible” drop into the room without touching the floor, or even the scene at the end of Bourne where furious computer research is happening even while snipers take position around the building the research happens in.

My last criticism of this game revolves around its system. After reading the book, I can’t say that I have a good feeling for the Gumshoe system, and I felt like some parts of the book presumed familiarity with the system. Furthermore, I found myself stumbling on phrases like “unless the agent has x skill” or “except when the agents are in a chase.” Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by playing too much Fate lately, but there were several times where I read something and thought, “I’m never going to remember that; I suppose I’ll make something up on the fly.”

Conclusion

If you want to feel like a badass, get this book. If you’re sick of Twilight, get this book. If you want compelling player-versus-player that doesn’t ruin campaigns or friendships, get this book.

Hell, if you like roleplaying games, get this book. It thoroughly deserves its spot as a nominee for Best RPG of the Year, and I’m very much looking forward to giving it a try.