Monday, December 24, 2012

Just What I Wanted

Two posts ago, I complained about the lack of examples for certain key Night's Black Agents mechanics: most specifically Tactical Fact-Finding Benefits and Preparedness. In the days since then, Pelgrane Press has announced an upcoming NBA sourcebook called Double Tap. As it turns out, one thing they are planning to include in Double Tap is at least one TFFB example for each Investigative Ability. This makes me very pleased.

I still plan to compile a list of TFFBs of my own (and post them here when I'm done), just to help me get familiar with the inner workings of NBA's most fiddly mechanic. Still, it's nice to know that the powers that be are hard at work on exactly the thing I felt their game really needed.

Overall, the outline for the Double Tap sourcebook looks really sharp, with lots of useful material for players and GMs. The additional Cherries and Thriller Maneuvers in particular seem like a particularly needed expansion, as the existing Cherries are not all equivalent in power or usefulness.  I eagerly await Double Tap's impending delivery via covert brush pass or dead drop.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Fight Gone Wrong

A few weeks ago, in my Night's Black Agents game there was a fight scene that ended poorly for a character, and it shouldn't have. From my perspective, I saw that a PC made a poor tactical/mechanical decision, that nearly got them killed.  However, the message that at least some of my players walked away with was "wow, this system kinda sucks, and the PCs are really weak". I didn't realize till today, reading the comments to my last post, that any of the players felt this way. It's a pretty heavy disconnect, and I think I need to address it. I'd prefer to do this in person, but we won't be playing again till after the holidays.

How To Succeed At Gumshoe Combat

General advice on how to approach Gumshoe fight scenes.
  • Spend Points. Lots of them. Enough that you never actually have to roll, because even a "1" on the die will still be a success.
  • The goal is to end every fight with zero points left over in your three best General Ability pools. You will almost always have the ability to restore all your points in any three pools between any two fight scenes.
  • The consequences of "wasting" points by spending too many are very minor. The consequences of not spending enough are far more dire. I'll go into more detail on this at the end of the post, but trust me, it's always better to over-spend.

And now for the specifics of one particular scene, and how it went horribly awry...

The Scene

Night's Black Agents is a game about Spies and Vampires.

During the session, a PC got a phone-call from an adversarial NPC who wants to arrange a meeting at the PCs hotel room. The meeting is, of course, an ambush, and the players knew it.  None-the-less, this PC chose to handle this scene by themselves, with no other PCs involved.

The NPC shows up at their door, and the PC looks out the peephole. I give the player a Sense Trouble roll, which he makes, and I tell him that he can tell there's two thugs with the NPC, at the edge of view on either side of the door. The player dithers, tells the NPC to leave because he's not feeling well. The thugs smash the door open, and combat begins.

The PC's Stats

The PC on question is the team's sniper, and thus a bit of a "glass cannon".

His big advantage is 10 points of Shooting, and the Cherry that gives a 3-point refresh per scene. If shooting runs out, he does have 4 Hand-to-Hand points he could fall back on. 

He has the default Hit Threshold of 3, and has only 6 Health, which is tied for lowest in the party. Since he's a player character, he can operate from health 0 to -5 with just a -1 to his die rolls, which is a minor (but risky) advantage over the NPCs.

The Opposition

There's two Thugs plus the named NPC. The thugs have guns, the named NPC has just a wooden stake. The thugs are low-level Russian mafiya goons, and no stranger to violence. The named NPC is a corrupt Russian Orthodox Priest, with exorcism experience. He's got a touch of athletics and plenty of occult, but not a lot of combat skill. The Priest thinks the PC is a vampire, the goons think they're just getting paid to be muscle.

The Thugs are Hit Threshold 3, same as the PC. They have Health 3 each, to the PCs Health 6, but unlike the PC they go down when they hit 0 Health. They have a combat pool of 4 points.

The misguided Priest is very determined, but lacks the skill-set for this kind of work. Hit Threshold 2, and no combat pool to speak of. He does have as much Health as the PC (so twice that of his thugs), but is out of the fight the moment that is reduced to zero.

GM's Game Plan

The thugs will follow the "Opposition Spends" rules on page 52 of NBA. That means they will only use 1 point from their attack pools on the first round, and only escalate beyond that if 1 point per round is failing to get results.

I picture the fight as follows:

Round 1: PC has the higher pool, and goes first. He spends 2 (of 10) shooting, and drops one thug. Since they're at point-blank range, it's literally impossible for the gunshot to not take the thug out, as the thug has 3 health and the PC is doing 1d6+2 damage. The second thug returns fire, and probably hits the PC for 1d6+2 damage. The priest, having never been shot at before, freezes up for a second and does nothing.

Round 2: PC fires at the second thug. They spend either 2 or 3 points (depending on whether or not they are wounded), which would be enough for an automatic hit. Again, at point blank range any hit kills a thug. So, he's down to either 5 or 6 Shooting points left, before he invokes his Cherry and refreshes his Shooting pool back up to an 8 or 9.  At this point, the Priest will no doubt have seen his two bodyguards die bloodily, and will probably bail.

Round 3: The PC either shoots the Priest in the back, or chases after him and knocks him out with hand-to-hand, or decides to just flee the scene before hotel security responds to the sound of gunshots.  The PC is probably wounded at this point, but in no real danger unless something really unusual happens.

What Actually Happened

Round 1 goes as expected. The PC spends 2 shooting, and drops one of the thugs, but then takes a bullet from the second one.  The thug rolls maximum damage (8), leaving the PC at Wounded (-2 Health).

Round 2 is where things get weird. The players are worried because the PC is wounded, and still has 2 foes to fight. They've drawn some inaccurate conclusions about the Priest, and expect him to be attacking this turn as well.

One of the other players suggests the PC should make a called shot to ensure that whoever he shoots goes down. This wasn't really necessary if the PC shoots the thug at point-blank (since any hit will kill him), but it would matter if the PC decided to plug away at the named Priest instead. That would be a tactical error, but the player doesn't know that because they don't know the hit point total of the unwounded enemy.

This leads to conversation about how called shots work. It's kinda fiddly and there's a chart, but it basically works along the lines of "add N to difficulty, to add N-1 to damage if you hit." There were too many people talking at once, and little fiddly details getting mentioned and discarded.

I think in the process, the player of the PC in question got a bit confused. He announced that he was targeting the face of the thug, raising difficulty by 4 to get +3 damage. To hit he would need to roll a 3, increased to a 4 because the shooter was wounded, increased to an 8 because of the called shot.  He then announced, to my horror, that he was spending 2 points of Shooting, and rolled the die. His total was, as probability would suggest, less than an 8 on 1d6+2. He missed entirely.

Naturally, the thug returns fire. I spend zero points on the roll (he'd hit the previous round), but he still only needs to roll a "3" to hit, which he does. I proceed to roll maximum damage again, for the second gunshot in a row. The player is now at -10 health, and thus must make a difficulty 10 roll to remain conscious. Suffice it to say, that didn't happen.

Round 3: The PC is lying on the floor, bleeding out. The thug bails before the cops can arrive.  The Priest is left with a very messy situation on his hands, and is still there when the rest of the party shows up.

What I, As GM, Should Have Done Differently

Prior to the fight, I probably should have more strongly encouraged the party not to split up.  I wasn't too worried, because the PC should have been able to take the bad guys in a couple turns with only minor injuries. Still, if I had kept the group together, this would have been a cakewalk for them.

I should have made the NPCs breaking in the door take more than 1 turn. That I would definitely do differently if I ran this scene over again. If the player had a couple turns to think and act while the thugs kicked at the door, he might have come up with a clever plan, or just gone out a window to escape.

On the first round of the fight, perhaps I should have given the player an explicit reminder of the rules for taking cover, and the rules for invoking Tactical Fact Finding Benefits. Either would have made the fight look a lot less intimidating to the players. Ironically, a less-threatening fight probably would have resulted in the player being more inclined to spend points. It's a little counter-intuitive, but basically by presenting the fight as being a challenge, I inadvertently encouraged the player to horde their points for later rounds. This desire to stash points away in case things get worse later is a fairly common reaction when you haven't yet figured out how Gumshoe really works, and it almost always backfires.

I'm still not sure if I should or should not have told the player: "Don't bother with called shots, this guy will go down with one hit without it".  In this situation, that particular player character option didn't really help at all. Since a two-point spend without a called shot was sufficient to kill the thug, there was no point in using a fancy combat option that raised the difficulty. Some GMs would be inclined to help the player out here, and others tend to keep the bad guys HPs (etc) secret or leave strategy up to the players. I was on the fence, and could have gone either way.

At the very least, I should have taken better control of the table so we weren't all bombarding the player with different bits of rules detail. I think we overwhelmed him.

Certainly, if I'd processed that he was only spending 2 points before the die left his hand, I would have encouraged him to spend more.

Not my best moment as a GM, but not game-breakingly bad either.  I've fumbled worse before, and will likely do so again at some point.

Arguments In Favor Of Spending More Points

Not convinced that it's better to spend your points now then save them for later? Here's some rambling arguments to support my position:

Refreshing pools is easy, so there's no need to save points. Most NBA characters have some sort of Cherry that lets them refresh 3 points in their best skill, once per scene. Even without that, if you get an hour's peace and rest between fights or chases, you get a full refresh of any three General Ability pools. That's a standard rule in Gumshoe. If 24 hours go by without a fight or chase, you'll refresh all your General Abilities. If you accomplish a major success that wraps up an "Operation", you can expect for the whole party to refresh everything.  It should be very rare that you go more than one session without a refresh of some sort. You can routinely drain three entire Abilities per major fight or chase scene without suffering any long-term consequence.

The secret of Gumshoe is that it is actually a diceless system. Rolling the die should be the thing you do only when you're out of points. Anything worth doing is worth spending enough points on that you auto-succeed.

The point of Gumshoe is avoid the narrative collapse that can happen in normal systems when a bad die roll derails an investigation. The GM wants you to solve the mystery, so the rules ensure that you can't accidentally fail it because the dice suck. The same logic applies to combat rolls as well. The GM wants you to win the fight, and hates to see you fail just because of a bad die roll.  If you spend lots of points, the die roll won't matter.

Gumshoe is not d20, you're not going to have to make dozens of attack rolls per battle. Most foes will go down in one or two gunshots.  You don't need to hold back points in case the fight "goes long". You need to spend points early so that your victory happens quickly and decisively.

On a related note, if some NPC in NBA doesn't die after the second gunshot, that almost certainly means they are a wickedly-powerful supernatural entity and your guns won't save you. Time to flee. Come back later with holy water, lots of explosives, and the element of surprise.

If that sounds like gunfights in Gumshoe (especially NBA) are intentionally lop-sided, you're getting the picture.  It's intentional. Long drawn-out fights are bad, and generally a sign that the players should have fled several turns ago. If you can win, you'll do so very quickly.  By turn 3 of any battle, you should either be mopping up the stragglers of your obvious victory, or running for the exits because your life depends on it.

If the PC in our scene had spent 4 more points on his second roll, he would have killed the second gunman and thus won the whole fight. Instead, he saved himself 4 Shooting points but "paid" 8 health instead.  As this left him with 6 Shooting and -10 Health, it was not a good trade.

The consequences of "wasting" points by spending more Shooting (for example) than you needed to on early rolls is fairly minor: in some later turn you might have to take some action other than shooting. You might use hand-to-hand to keep fighting, or athletics to escape. You might take cover, and let some other PC do the shooting for a while. These are pretty minor consequences.

The consequences of not spending enough points on a Shooting roll is usually that you miss, and then you get shot later that round or the next when your foe survives to counter-attack.  That is a far worse consequence then wasting a point here or there. It does you no good to hold back 2 points of a skill "for later" if not using them right now gets you killed. You can't spend those extra 2 points after you die, so you might as well use them this turn instead.

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.