Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Night's Black Agents: The Hite Supremacy

FINAL CLEARANCE
Last December I received the advance pdf of the new GUMSHOE rpg, Night’s Black Agents. This was a preliminary draft version- texts without layout and no real art. I wrote up some of my thoughts about that version in a post- Tinker,Tailor, Vampire, Spy. I really liked what I saw in that rough version and had high hopes for the final edition. At GenCon I finally got my pre-order hardcover- including an autograph from author Ken Hite. I liked the electronic version, but nothing compares to actually sitting down and reading the physical copy of the book.

Night’s Black Agents is the latest game from Pelgrane using the GUMSHOE system. I’ve written about that system in the past (here). For a new gamer’s guide to the line, I put together a survey: GUMSHOE:System Guide for New Gamers. In Night’s Black Agents the PCs take the role of spies who have been “burned” and disavowed. They’ve crossed paths with a vampiric conspiracy and now have to fight back against it. In order to do so they’ll need to uncover the nature of their foe while revealing the enemy’s network. Most importantly, NBA offers a highly customizable framework for running many kinds of campaigns against many kinds of opponents.

PRESENTATION
Night’s Black Agents is a 232 page full-color hardcover. The cover art’s striking and evocative. I like that the illustrations and color palettes on the GUMSHOE hardcovers have been distinct from one another. Most of the interior art is striking and excellent. The artists have to live up to the standards set by J√©rome Huguenin and company in the other Pelgrane books. The best of the interior work has a photo-manipulation look that works really well in the context of the game. It is a pretty book- with a nice balance of art and text.

But the star of the show is the layout. Chris Huth knocks this completely out of the park. Last week I reviewed GURPS Alpha Centauri, a supplement which used three-column text in a way that made it difficult to read. I couldn’t go more than a couple of pages without stopping. Pelgrane’s consistently used three columns and it has worked well. But it looks even better in Night’s Black Agents. Everything- font choice, white space, icons, heading sizes, the way the sidebars run tight against the page- works to make this supremely readable and legible. The nice semi-gloss paper is the cherry on the top. Layout’s not something I can claim any expertise in, but I know what I like.

When I read the pre-layout pdf I wasn’t sure how they would manage to present the information in coherent way. Dense concepts, combined with numerous side-bits, presented a challenge. But they’ve overcome that with color and font combinations. A small detail, but one I appreciate- within each section the top-bar on the page announces the topics covered on the two facing pages. The primarily color element shifts slightly from section to section, creating flow.

THE BOOK ITSELF
The rules break down into an introduction, six major section, plus closing material featuring an adventure plus appendices.

Introduction: Right away NBA sets up the flexibility of the premise. It talks about the different modes the story can be told in from Bourne to Bond, Smiley to Westen. NBA offers the most flexible and rich structure yet presented for a GUMSHOE game. Mutant City Blues and Ashen Stars have a concept and lock in some assumptions. Those aren’t rigid, but they do require some tinkering. NBA puts all of the “dials” for the game at the forefront. The GM has to go through and set those before play. And those changes can have significant impacts on what the game feels like. NBA is a powerful toolkit, with easy to follow instructions for building the campaign.

Characters (9-42): Presenting the rules for character building, it offers a couple of interesting ideas. I like picking a “class” in the form of a general type template and then tweaking that with a chosen MOS (one skill you automatically succeed on once per session). The more detailed Drives system- with some game benefits and consequences works here. The mechanical system for tracking trust and betrayal presents another interesting wrinkle. Often these kinds of social incentive systems don’t work- forcing actions against player wishes. These rules seem easy and useful for other games. Overall the section presents the necessary rules well while offering many new options and decisions for the veteran GUMSHOE player. New players may feel a little overwhelmed.

Rules (43-93): Night’s Black Agents works through the core rules of the system in fifty pages. Ashen Stars did it in 20- or 60 if you include Starship Battles. The clear presentation keeps the focus on the purpose: emulating espionage stories. It nicely shifts the focus of the mystery process from the usual whodunit to something larger. NBA increases the number of player options (martial arts, sniping, called shots, etc.) without changing some of the basic structures (weapon damage ranges). GM’s will want to carefull annotate the details- perhaps putting together a quick list of options (with their associated numbers). The Chase system presented is especially good- elemental, evocative, and most of all playable.

Tools (94-118): I like that this section not only covers hardware, but also general tactics and player advice. It offers resources useful to any kind of modern gaming GM. Players ought to read through the insight here before diving into a campaign.

Vampires (119-163): Here Hite combines his encyclopedia knowledge with game utility. He offers a toolkit for building “your” vampires. Each campaign can be different- a distinct vision of the vampiric world: supernatural, dammed, alien or mutant. He offers quick examples of created types, followed by several unusual examples from sources. The section on creating a “Conspyramid” ought to be standard for any game involving conspiracies. It offers the GM a deceptively simple campaign creation tool.

Cities (164-179): Night’s Black Agents has a distinctly European feel- and this section covers international locations (including China, USA a a couple of others). It offers some quick and dirty ideas for prepping cities and gives three examples (Bucharest, London, and Tunis).

Stories (180-197): This covers how to set up the essential spine of an espionage campaign and considers how it differs from the standard GUMSHOE approach. It also presents a number of alternative approaches to the campaign frame.

Adventure & Appendices (198-232): A rich and multi-stage adventure, “(S)Entries,” manages to do quite a bit in nine pages. After that the book gives a modest bibliography (I would have liked to see more), blank sheets of various kinds, and a really thorough index.

ARE THERE DOWNSIDES?
I think NBA’s awesome and amazingly well-constructed. However it does offer greater mechanical complexity than other GUMSHOE games. It isn’t as complicated as something like D&D 4e or Rolemaster, but it does have a wealth of numbers, values, secondary rules, and “if, then” details. The various versions of GUMSHOE have been heading in this direction. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, but more a matter of personal taste. GMs used to more mechanical games will be able to handle it. Smart and solid GMs will try to put much of that work in the players’ hands- as many of those rules relate to PC options. That means that players will benefit from picking up and studying these rules.

That’s something of a switch for me and my group. In recent years we’ve moved to more streamlined and easier systems. With something like The Esoterrorists, I could pick up and explain the mechanics pretty easily- with a few options players could learn later. And players didn’t necessarily need to buy a copy of the game (often a sticking point with groups). It isn’t that GMs won’t be able to teach and roll with the game right away, but there’s a vast swath of options and maneuvers players will have to discover. A GM could move to streamline and simplify those options. As a GM who has shifted to lighter systems like FATE, Unisystem, and homebrews, that’s my initial instinct. However the options offered here seem really cool- I like the way they work. I fear too much reduction loses some of the atmosphere the game wants to create.

It’s also worth noting that the game has an international feel. Many modern games end up with a default American backdrop. The spy-thriller genre lends itself to that approach (consider how weaker the James Bond films set in the US are…). Obviously there are some exceptions (24, Burn Notice, a lot of Alias). But GMs should be prepared for that and the work involved. They’ll also need a group interested in that kind of globe-trotting play.

OVERALL
I liked last year’s preliminary version of Night’s Black Agents, and this confirms and extends that. It’s a brilliantly assembled volume with amazing layout and compelling writing. It’s certainly my favorite of the line. I really love it despite some of my reservations about portions of the core system (WhineSHOE: Rethinking GUMSHOE). Veteran GUMSHOE players will find much to love here. It presents many new approaches to the mechanics and options which they may want to port over to another published version or their own homebrew setting (GUMSHOE Global Frequency anyone?). Trust, bennies for high ability ratings, chases- all of these offer excellent new options for the detail-oriented gamer. RPGers interested in espionage games will also find this useful. Until now, I’d considered Spycraft 2.0 the recommended toolkit for GMs working in the genre. Not running the system as is, but finding useful concepts there. Now I’d recommend NBA first- as it presents ideas more tightly and in a more approachable style. Finally “Hunter” gamers should also consider this book. The idea of customizable adversaries, the challenge of discovering an opponent’s nature, and the creation of conspiracies all work for those kinds of games. Night’s Black Agents shows how to do a genre framework right.