As night falls on Belgrade, you and your team of special agents go on high alert. You've got the gadgetry of Bond and the competence of Bourne, but this is a shadowy international conspiracy you're up against: drug lords, corporate masterminds, bought politicians, crooked Interpol agents, and vampires. The bad kind. This is the world of tabletop RPG Night's Black Agents.
In Night's Black Agents, the players take on the roles of secret agents working to uncover an insidious worldwide conspiracy that's controlled by evil vampires. It's filled with innovative features that help create a unique gaming experience and make it relatively easy for the game master to create an elaborate global vampire conspiracy without spending endless hours on preparation.
At the core of Night's Black Agents is Pelgrane Press' Gumshoe system, an RPG that puts investigation at the center of the action. The age-old problem with doing mystery-solving scenarios in RPGs is that one bad roll of the dice can put up a massive roadblock that stalls the entire adventure. Gumshoe avoids this by making sure the players get the clues without having to roll – as long as they ask the right questions, they get the answers (although successful rolls can reveal more valuable or complete clues). It's then up to the players to put the pieces together and figure out how to advance the investigation. It's an elegant system that puts the focus on the players' skill, not die rolls.
Mechanically, Night's Black Agents features a streamlined system that mostly gets out of the way of adventure and story. Every roll uses a basic six-sided die, with the difficulty of the intended action shifting the target number. Players can also spend ability points to increase their chances, allowing them to succeed at tasks that would otherwise be impossible on a D6 roll (something with, say, a target number of 8, for instance).
Since uncovering a mystery is at the heart of the Night's Black Agents experience, it wouldn't do to have a single, canonical campaign world laid out for you (not much replay value in that). Instead, game masters are given a toolset with which they can customize their game. There are different optional rules to choose from depending on what style of espionage thriller you prefer. Do you want a gritty, low-tech game, or one filled with paranoia and shifting loyalties? Or do you want idealistic heroes fighting to make the world a better place?
By the same token, Night's Black Agents doesn't just offer up one kind of vampire. Learning the nature of your foes is a huge part of the game. They can be suave Eastern European nobility, or malformed freaks sulking in the sewers. They could even be bizarre extra-dimensional entities only vaguely recognizable as vampires at all. There's a whole menu of weird powers and attributes that allow you to dial up whatever flavor of bloodsucker you prefer.
Finally, there's the conspyramid. Instead of writing an elaborate, linear plot that would take forever to create and still never account for all the possible questions the players might ask or paths they might take, game masters create a sort of story network, linking various nodes to each other. The nodes form a pyramid, and as the players move through the conspiracy, they move up the pyramid, where things get more dangerous.
So when the players investigate a nightclub where there were rumors of a vampire attack, the game master knows there's a connection to an international shipping company. Without having drawn up every little detail in advance, it's easy enough to say, "A delivery truck with the shipping company's logo on the side is parked at the service entrance," or, "A log book in the manager's office shows lots of deliveries from the shipping company."
You can acquire Night's Black Agents in either print or PDF format from publisher Pelgrane Press. For some extra insight into the development of Night's Black Agents, here's an exclusive interview with designer Kenneth Hite.
Ed Grabianowski: Where did the idea for Night's Black Agents come from? The vampire/secret agent combo is pretty unique.
Kenneth Hite: The idea came pretty much full blown. I was standing on a train platform in Chicago on a summer night as the current campaign was running down, and I thought: "Vampire weather." Then I thought: "I should run a vampire-hunting campaign next. In Gumshoe." Then I tried to figure out who the PCs would be, and I flashed on the escrima fight in the middle Bourne movie, only with Jason Bourne using a stake instead of a rolled-up magazine. Pretty much the whole process of Night's Black Agents after that was getting back to that single flash on the train platform at night.
EG: At what point did the Gumshoe system come into play?
KH: This was pretty much always going to be a Gumshoe game. It started in Gumshoe and grew to full, bloody-fanged, gun-toting maturity in that system. Once I started to really drill into the meat of the thriller, its architecture and its structure, it became obvious that Gumshoe was a great fit: thrillers are speeded-up mysteries, or as some waggish critic once wrote, thrillers are mysteries in which the reader already knows who did it. But every scene in a thriller, fundamentally, is either about getting information or surviving the danger the information pointed you into. Gumshoe was rock-solid on the first half; the second half was the half I had to build up a bit.
EG: Like a lot of modern RPGs, Night's Black Agents doesn't offer up a single canonical "campaign world," instead giving players and GMs a set of worldbuilding tools. How do you think those two approaches fit different RPGs?
KH: Well, with Night's Black Agents, if I was going to keep the mystery-solving, clue-following aspect of Gumshoe intact, I couldn't present a canonical campaign world — anyone who bought the book would know the solution! I had to present a wide menu of options for building vampires and conspiracies. That said, the "campaign world" is the one we see when we turn on Sky News or CNN or Al Jazeerah: our world, usually on fire.
I think for games that privilege player-character foreknowledge, like Vampire or Forgotten Realms or Legend of the Five Rings, where knowing your social environment is key to success, and where your characters begin with a good idea of the threats they face, or where (as in those games) experiencing the specific challenges of the setting is much of the key to its appeal, providing a single "campaign world" is just fine — I do it myself in Day After Ragnarok, after all.
For games of mystery, horror, exploration, that kind of thing, worldbuilding tools are crucial because every GM and every player group have different touchstones for wonder and horror and excitement. Really robust games, like D&D or Traveller or Call of Cthulhu, manage to mix both approaches. That's sort of what NBA aims for, by mixing the Director-constructed backstory with the completely accessible surface world of spies and modern-day clandestine ops.
EG: What movies or novels capture the feel of this game?
KH: The Bourne trilogy, Taken, and the Frankenheimer movie Ronin in film; John Steakley's Vampire$, Tim Powers' Declare and The Stress of Her Regard in fiction. From those bases, you can range in all sorts of directions: go deep into LeCarré or go wild with Alias or go gonzo with Blade.
EG: Some of my favorite parts of the Night's Black Agents rule book are the playtesting anecdotes. Do you have a favorite moment from playtesting?
KH: The playtest was a really good campaign, which made me feel really good about having sold the game to Simon. We knew it was working when we played it. I think one of my favorite sessions was when the agents, fleeing an SAS hit team, met the giant stone head buried in a pool of mercury underneath the Guildhall in London: that was just perfectly creepy and transcendent with a strong thriller edge to it still. (The "Alien Stones" vampires in the corebook are my vampires from that first playtest.) Another good scary moment involved the agents' desperately jury-rigged UV arc lamps burning out one by one on the back of a moving train, while the camazotz hovered ever closer to them.