Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Night's Black Examples

I've run two sessions of Night's Black Agents so far, and I'm really enjoying the game. One of the area's where Night's Black Agents (hereafter called NBA) is really strong is in the mechanical additions to the Gumshoe system. The new rules take the game system in entirely new directions, and, as always, Kenneth Hite's writing is quite clever. However, he in a few places he failed to provide enough concrete examples to fully utilize some of the groundbreaking new rules.

In this post, I'm specifically talking about Tactical Fact Finding and Preparedness, though the general "not enough examples" complaint can be applied to other parts of the otherwise-delightful rulebook. Tactical Fact Finding is a new mechanic, while Preparedness has been around since the very first Gumshoe product and is simply dialed up a little in NBA.

Both of these mechanics allow for players to cut corners during the planning stage and ret-con in surveillance and preparations. In theory this should seriously reduce time wasted micromanaging details or arguing over what the correct course of action is. In practice I'm finding the players still demand all the details and take several hours per session trying to work out the perfect attack plan. More and better examples of allowable spur-of-the-moment ret-conning to point the players at would be one way to encourage them to speed themselves along and not sweat the small stuff.

Even more importantly from my perspective, however, is the degree of GM fatigue and GM fiat that could most certainly be reduced if they only had better examples for these two mechanics. They're not the most radical rules in the book, which is probably why they got under-exampled, but they are rules that will require a lot of GM improvisation and possibly some house-ruling.

Tactless Facts about Tactical Fact Finding Benefits 

While I love the concept of the TFFB (Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit), I find the execution to be a bit incomplete and even vague. In a nutshell, a TFFB is a bonus that the players get during a fight or chase by using their Investigative Abilities. This is an awesome concept that really catches the feel of clever spies fighting smart and dirty. However, it's so open-ended that there's just not much guidance for the GM, and I find myself raising a critical eyebrow at that.

For starters, the actual benefit could be just about anything. The rules list 5 general categories of benefit, and sheepishly suggest point-ranges for the three categories that have something to do with bonus points. The numbers are pretty vague, a TFFB for a group of 4 players could render anywhere between 4 and 24 points if I'm reading it right. Those points could come in the form of a group pool, individual refreshes, reductions in enemy point pools, or reduction in difficulty numbers - and lets not kid ourselves about those categories being 1-for-1 comparable.

There are 35 investigative abilities in the game. Some, like Architecture or Military Science, are really easy to imagine how they'd be helpful in a fight or chase. Others, like Accounting or Forgery, are difficulty to dream up tactical uses for, on the spot, after the bullets have started flying.

That is, by the way, exactly what you're supposed to do: improvise these on-the-fly based off of player actions. Each individual player may invoke one of these per combat round, so even if the GM preps a half dozen between sessions, they'll quickly have to start improvising.

Creating a TFFB involves defining 5 very open-ended variables.
  1. An investigative ability (from the list of 35) chosen by the Player. Everything after that is up to the GM.
  2. Whether or not the player has to spend a point of that ability to get the benefit. 
  3. An action or situation that is somehow linked to that ability and the scene at hand. 
  4. A benefit of one of five general types (or something new the GM dreams up). 
  5. The intensity (point-value) of that benefit. 

 I'm sure they are so open-ended, vaguely defined, and situational on purpose. No doubt that is intended to be a benefit here. The experienced GM can make up whatever they want, as long as it corresponds to the skill the player chose. This can be really simple, if your players are always grabbing the same couple skills or generally under-using the mechanic. If they are instead trying to get the most out of these potentially very powerful bonuses (and they should be), they can really put the GM in the hot-seat.

Some d20 book in my collection (quite possibly the 3.0 DMG) made the then-remarkable assertion that any unusual situation or circumstance that could modify a roll could be represented by a simple +2 or -2 instead of trying to compare and rank the details. If there's seven different factors at play, 4 good and 3 bad, you'd throw +8 and -6 at them, for a net bonus of +2 and be done with it. Quick and easy. Warhammer 3rd went one step further by using white and black dice that were every bit as easy to pile on to a roll, but didn't automatically cancel each other and you could get more nuanced results. Why does NBA, a game using an engine that is far less fiddly and crunchy than either of those two games, have such a completely inelegant system for handling these benefits? It boggles my mind. It is, admittedly, kind of cool and very immersive, but it's also uncharacteristically fiddly.

I've got 6 players at my table, so in theory I could have to come up with 6 of these things per combat round. Frankly, that sounds fatiguing. I would gladly pay money for an entire sourcebook (or even a deck) full of examples of TFFBs that I could use or riff off of. Instead the game gives a mere 4 examples, 2 of which are not generally reusable.


Preparedness is a General Ability that can be used to acquire equipment the moment you need it. Need a tracking device in a hurry, but forgot to tell the GM you wanted to bring one (or honestly didn't think about it at all till right now)? A successful preparedness roll puts the device in your pocket retroactively. This is a standard of Gumshoe games.

NBA adds the extra wrinkle that you can use Preparedness to ret-con in an entire spy cache of useful equipment. If you need a large number of items, but aren't in as much of a hurry, you can make a roll to access a storage unit, safe house, or safe deposit box full of stuff that you'd stashed away months ago. The difficulty of this roll is 6, and it essentially allows everyone in the party to each name an item that's in your stash.

Could that stash have a suitcase nuke, or a wrist-watch with a hidden laser? That's up to the GM. Are guns allowed, or just the miscellaneous tools mentioned specifically in the base preparedness write-up? Again, that's up to the GM. The only guidance given here is that a maximum of one item per cache can be a vehicle. While I'll gladly agree that the most outlandish items should be subject to GM veto, nowhere in the book does the game give any solid advice on what is or isn't a legitimate request from a cache, or what the difficulty of high-powered gear should be outside of a cache.

The equipment section of the game is about a dozen pages, and yet manages to almost completely avoid mention of Preparedness. The new GM is left without any guidance, and players basically have to read several pages only to conclude that all equipment is gained by GM Fiat. What's the difficulty to pull a grenade out of my backpack? 3? 4? 5? That's entirely up to the GM - even though pulling multiple grenades out of a Cache is (almost-clearly) difficulty 6. How fancy can that one vehicle per Cache be? Again, that's up to the GM. Shouldn't this sort of stuff have been on an equipment chart somewhere?

What really bugs me about this is that the book includes this nifty set of icons that are used repeatedly for tweaking mechanics to match which ever subgenre of spy-film you're trying to emulate. Preparedness is exactly the sort of mechanic that should be tweaked depending on whether you're running "Dust"-mode realistic spies or "Stakes"-mode over-the-top cinema. So if the excuse for not providing guidance here can't be "we don't want to dictate to the GM what kind of game to run". If you're already encouraging the GM to pick-and-choose which rules subsets to use, then you can only gain by providing suggested examples to go with those subsets. It seems like an oversight to have not given Preparedness a little more per-mode attention.

The Plan: 

Venting to the internet may make me feel a little better, but it rarely improves the external reality. It's not like I hate the game, either. I'm really enjoying it, I just wish there were more useful examples provided for these specific rules. The Conspiramid and build-a-vampire rules, for example, are chock full of really useful examples, even though the everyone at the table will interact with those systems far less often than with the TFFB and Preparedness mechanics.

The obvious solution is for me to go to work dissecting and building examples of my own. Keep your eyes open to this blog, and eventually I'll probably have "Night's Black Examples part 2", hopefully with a few dozen TFFB examples and maybe some Preparedness charts for the four main game modes.


Anonymous said...

I've been enjoying your game, but don't really find the system compelling. It wants to have this you can go in and do cool stuff and not sweat the details style. However, the base mechanic is resource management. You can do cool things like seeing the opposition fleeing in a helicopter, spending 6 preparedness to have a rocket launcher, and spending your shooting MOS to hit. That's pretty awesome. But you've now used up a huge chunk of your resources. What they are trying for is you have X points to go gang busters so get out there and roll. However, the minute a player sees a resource management mechanic they start to manage resources. They see it as you only have X points and when you are out your character is no more capable than the little old lady running the flower stand. So they then move carefully to make sure that they don't run out of points. I think that the resource management aspect really encourages the exact opposite of the effect they were trying for.
Just my 2 cents

r_b_bergstrom said...

I see your point, but I don't particularly agree with it.

If that were the case, no one would ever cast a spell in D&D.

Those 6 points of Preparedness were purchased from a General Abilities pool of 70-ish points. Those 6 points and an MOS are basically 10% of one player's budget of "special moves" for the night.

Compare that to D&D 3.0, where the DMG tells you that a typical encounter should use up 25% of the player's resources.

r_b_bergstrom said...

That 10% figure is also not taking into account their Investigative Abilities, refreshes from Cherries, bonus pools from the Adversary Map or Tactical Fact-Finding, etc. All told, it's probably a lot less than 10% of one player's resources to auto-win the encounter for the whole group. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

It's not that DnD wizards don't cast spells. But I've always said that the sign of a skilled DnD wizard is that they know when to not cast spells and let everyone not burning resources take care of the problem.

In this game all the PCs are DnD wizards. Try running a DnD game were everyone is a 4th level wizard. See how brave they are rushing into situations without planning. It's not that they can't rock and can't do the job. They probably can. It's that a miscalculation can get them all killed so they are going to spend time planning.

As to the percentage of resources, the instant win seems highly specialized. In game it seemed that winning a fight would require virtually all of a combat specialist's combat points for the session. Some 6 or more per mook from a pool of 10 to 14. And since a good chunk of your points are only of use in certain situations the total number is less important. If only 14 apply to the present situation then using 12 of those is pretty massive as you then must avoid that situation again for the rest of the game.

For example, my character had 3 preparedness. I can't go into a situation figuring that if I need something I can just use preparedness. I'll probably need to roll a 5 or 6 and then spend all of my points and fail anyways. And that is one shot in the entire run. That is really only an emergency back up for when the 17 things I spent an hour of game time prepping are insufficient.

I should also note that I am talking about perception. As the GM you know what is needed and what the opposition is. We might have many more points than we need to solve a problem, but it might not seem that way to the player. But since perception will inform decisions I think that limiting skill uses to a few successes a session encourages people to really try to limit their exposure to risk rather than ignore it.

Markwalt said...

The game's been an awful lot of fun. Who doesn't like vampires and spies? The setting is pretty awesome.

That said, this is a game system where in order to "do well" in the game, one must understand the system, and one must play to it.

It's a very mechanical game. Not that it's "crunchy" necessarily, or difficult. In fact, it's pretty streamlined and fairly light. But unlike many other light systems it feels to me that the game mechanics are more important than roleplay in determining the character's success.

Now that I have a better understanding of how the game should be played, I won't play my character as if he's in a PDQ or Risus game.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Perhaps it is a matter of perception. I've been running Gumshoe nearly every week for every 4 years, so I've got a pretty solid feel for the mechanics. The player's familiarity with the mechanics probably varied more than I realized.

The trick to Gumshoe combat is to spend lots of points. The number one cause of character injury in Gumshoe is not spending enough points soon enough. As Peter said at the start of the fight where Mark's character got knocked out, "the goal is to end every combat with no points left to spend."

Refreshing your point pools is very easy and happens quite often. If Devon will let me, I'll try to start the next session with a discussion of your point-refreshing options. That seems to be the root of the perception issue, I think.