Saturday, February 25, 2017

Do they really expect me to play baccarat with Count Dracula?

I'm having a hard time figuring out how to make the Gambling skill in Night's Black Agents interesting in play, without breaking the game in any way.

It hasn't really mattered in my previous two campaigns, because no one ever put more than a couple points in it. This campaign, I've got 2 PCs with level 8 Gambling ratings, and while there's some interesting "Cherries" to pick from at that level, it's hard to picture how I'm going to make Gambling be important (or interesting) often enough to make those points feel well-spent.

I guess the right play for the GM is to craft the narrative so the PCs have no stable income and have to rely on periodic Gambling forays to finance their Ops. The game's monetary system is pretty loosy-goosy and avoids dollar signs as much as possible. There's no equipment charts, nor do you have to account for every last gold piece, so there's no mechanical incentive (or method) for, say, making a 20% return on investment. Either it does nothing, or it generates "Excessive Funds" with no real risk, so the needle jumps wildly between "useless" and "broken" depending almost entirely on GM fiat. I'm not happy with that.

What's more, the game's mechanics are set up to encourage PCs have rock solid competence. If you know the difficulty of the roll you're making, and success on the roll is at all important, the right call for the player is almost always to spend enough points that the die is irrelevant.

The only likely reason not to spend enough that even a "1" on the die is a success, is if you're trying to hold something back for later in the session. It's easy to imagine situations where a PC might not want to spend their last point of Shooting, or Driving, to hold on to it in case another gunfight or a chase scene breaks out. But you're rarely if ever going to think "I'd better not spend my last point of Gambling, just in case there's a surprise slot machine ambush!"

If I make all their gambling be one or two high-difficulty rolls, the PC will dump all their points on them and be guaranteed to win big. Calling for a long series of smaller rolls might make the PC's decisions from roll to roll feel more important, and better justify (via hard work) the benefits of gambling-as-finance, but it's probably going to put the uninvolved members of the party straight to sleep. Either way, the rules as written don't really catch the feel of risking everything on a big bet, which is a real shame because that's the appeal of a gambling montage in a spy movie. I suppose you could get that feel by setting really high difficulty numbers, I guess, but then you're looking at a situation where a PC drops 8 or more points on a single roll (which would be overkill on any other skill) to still only have a 50-50 shot at success. More exciting, yes, but again it would feel like those 8 points during Character Creation could have been spent better elsewhere.

I'm starting to think that maybe Gambling should be an Investigative Skill, not a General Ability, in Night's Black Agents. If that were the case, you'd use Gambling to qualify or earn a seat at the table where the Enemy high-rollers were playing, or to locate the floating poker game where the opposition thugs play. Gambling would then pick up clues about NPCs using sleight of hand, or NPCs having suspiciously good luck, or you'd use Gambling to follow the paper trail of the mafioso who owns the track. You'd even be able to spend Gambling to gain a Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit or Tag-Team Tactical Benefit bonus on a skill roll, and retroactively justify it in the narrative as having spent your winnings to have better equipment. (Gambling spent to TTTB on your comrade's Preparedness roll just seems kinda fun.) There's some decent ideas there, so I'm going to try to work some Investigative Spends for this General Ability in my current campaign. It's going to take some significant scenario-design effort on my part to make those 8 points feel as meaningful as they would have been if sunk into Athletics or even Digital Intrusion.

Next campaign, I'll probably shift Gambling to the other column of the character sheet. It seems like that's where it belongs.

If anyone with GUMSHOE experience has any better ideas or advice, I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Mos Philos

In Night’s Black Agents, every PC has one MOS. This stands for Military Occupational Specialty, which, while delightfully jargonized, is a little misleading. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Military or your character’s official occupation. In a nutshell, an MOS is a once-per-session* automatic high-level success. You pick a single skill that you can absolutely rely on to save your bacon once per night*.

*: Recommended House Rule: The rules say MOS is once per session, but I’ve found that once per MISSION works much better, especially with larger groups. Once per Op means the players have to be a little careful not to just blow their MOS on something trivial, and in turn that frees up the GM to really make those MOS activations knock everyones socks off. The best reason to go with once-per-Operation instead of -per-session is that this discourages players from dragging things out. Someone metagaming the refresh system of a Gumshoe game like NBA can actually wreck your campaign. You never want a situation where the best play is to turtle up and do nothing until the end of the night because next week the PCs will all be back at full strength if they just stall out the clock. For my own campaigns I’ve moved all the end-of-session refreshes and processes to happen at end-of-mission instead, and I find it’s a strong improvement. Ops rarely last more than a second session back-to-back anyway, because all those MOS activations and Cherry benefits generally allow the PCs to shoot for the moon and stick the landing on any plan in just a session or two. About the only situation where I would consider moving things back to a per-session basis would be if I was running a campaign with just 1 or 2 players.  

I’ve seen three main philosophies or schools of thought for player MOS. Having seen them all in play, I think all are equally valid, though it took me a little while to get to that. Here’s three ways to pick an MOS:

1) Use it to strengthen the skill you plan to spend the most frequently. This is the obvious play for a super-shooty assault specialist. Putting your MOS in a skill you plan to lean on heavily provides you the freedom (and safety) of being able to blow all the points you want on every roll, knowing that even if you bottom out your best ability in a protracted conflict you still have one helluva trick up your sleeve.

Though I mentioned shooting, this approach actually works super well for non-combat skill MOS assignments. The notion of “master of disguise” is a very fitting one for the genre, but it can be very point-intensive in this game. You may feel that Disguise alone isn’t good enough, and before long your core concept is eating up your General Ability budget with the smorgasbord of Cover, Network, Infiltration, and Surveillance. Covering all the aspects of “master of disguise” can leave you feeling stretched thin, and those points all feel a little wasted when the current Op is some unsubtle smash-and-grab. Putting your MOS into one of those Abilities is a great way to ease that pain. You can then afford to specialize in just the Ability levels needed to score the most appealing Cherries, and know that a timely MOS will cover any oversights or point deficits.

Aligning your MOS with your best (or one of your best) skills feels very fitting, and makes good sense in- and out- of-character. There is no rule forcing you to pick an MOS in your best skill though, or even in a skill you've got any points in at all. Let's look at some other philosophies and options for MOS selection...

2) Use it to shore up a critical weakness. Here you’ll take a MOS in some action skill that you are otherwise incapable of using. The first time a player in one of my campaigns picked an MOS they didn’t have more than a point or two in, I was very apprehensive. On some level, it felt almost like an abuse of the system. But now I’ve seen it in action, and I’m a full convert.

One of the PCs in my current campaign took a Weapons MOS and basically no other combat skills. Once per mission* she can get the drop on someone and beat them into submission with a frying pan, but if faced with a protracted battle she’s more properly motivated to surrender and gather intel as a prisoner. It works out pretty well. She gets fun spotlight moments in the occasional fight despite being otherwise a non-combatant. That is all kinds of cool. The MOS mechanic allowed her the freedom to play a quirky civilian in a setting where that might otherwise be a lethally bad idea.

3) Use it to hand-wave past your least-favorite part of the genre. The entire point of Gumshoe is to cut out the tedious die-rolling and related frustrations that can wreck a mystery scenario… so there’s no reason you can’t apply that principle to any skill or type of scene that just doesn’t excite you.

For the sake of the argument, let’s say you just hate car chases. Maybe it’s the chase mechanics never live up to your imagination and expectations. Or maybe you’re bus-bound in the real world and couldn’t give a damn about cars. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided that you can’t stand car chases and don’t want to play that minigame. It may be counter-intuitive, but in that situation an MOS in Driving would be a great investment. It would allow you to short-circuit any chase or tailing sequence you want by just invoking your MOS to escape/catch-up/ram the opposition. If there’s someone else at the table that absolutely loves car chases, you can expect that there will be the occasional twice-in-one session chase scene extravaganza, but at least you only have to suffer through the second half of the double-play.  
(EDIT/afterthought: Depending on just how much your fellow players enjoy a car chase, you may find it fairest to instead suffer through a few minutes of it in the early part of a session, and then invoke your MOS if the scene really starts to drag or if a second car chase crops up in the same session. Your mileage may vary.)

Driving was merely the low-hanging fruit there, and the same principle can be applied to nearly any type of scene you don’t like if you just target the skill most likely to shortcut it. Hate shopping and planning scenes? A Preparedness MOS will get you the right tool for the job with no advance notice.  Can’t talk your way out of a wet paper bag? An Infiltration MOS will get you past the security check point and on to the fun parts behind enemy lines. Completely bewildered by technology, or bored to tears by hacking scenes? Digital Intrusion MOS cuts those down to a quick montage and a bare minimum of jargon.

The MOS mechanic is one of the great innovations of Night's Black Agents, and it does an amazing job of empowering the player to not just customize their character, but also tailor their gaming experience just the way they want it. That's a win for everyone.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Mapping Your Adversaries in Night's Black Agents

As mentioned last time, I've recently started my third Night's Black Agents campaign. Today I'm going to talk about one of my favorite mechanics in NBA, a mechanic which builds you an awesome in-game prop as you go.

I'm talking about the Adversary Map. You know that crazy photo-and-thread "murder board" of suspects, victims, leads and connections that shows up in many a detective film. It is to Night's Black Agents what sheets of graph paper were to old school D&D. I love it. You hand the players some push pins, surveillance photos, and colored yarn and ask them to start mapping out the opposition.

It's not just a prop, it's also a mechanical reward. At the start of every Night's Black Agents mission the PCs get bonus points (that can be spent to improve die rolls) based on the connections they have successfully drawn between the mission's target and various other assets and locations in play. This is genius.

For one thing, it perfectly captures the feel of the genre. The PCs are basically trying to identify and pick-apart a giant conspiracy, and this provides some truly excellent immersion into that mindset. Having used this now in multiple campaigns, I can't imagine running a "detective genre" game ever again without using it.

Along with that oh-so-tasty immersion in the setting, it also helps the players visualize what they are up against. The existence of this player-built map forces the PCs to have an ongoing dialog about the clues they've gathered and the avenues of investigation still open to them. It's a mystery game, so you want the players to take it seriously and try to figure out the big picture. The Adversary Map provides a guiding structure for those efforts, and it's damn awesome that the game rewards that good behavior in play.

More importantly, it gives the GM a clear image of what parts of the scenario the players have actually figured out, which bits have them stumped, and where they have drawn entirely the wrong conclusions. It helps the GM nearly as much as it helps the players, because it brings to your attention the parts of your mystery where you're being too successful with your plotline obfuscation. Sometimes, you hear the players talking about some random photo tacked to the Adversary Map and it brings to your attention a red-herring you didn't even mean to drag across their path. Armed with that knowledge, you know which plotpoints still need associated clues or thematic reinforcement, and can figure out how to rearrange things behind the scenes to improve your game.

I tend to enjoy running complicated and mysterious plotlines, and fully-fleshed sand-box settings with lots of nuance and considerable PC freedom. When a GM does that, though, you always run the risk that players will feel overwhelmed, or get mired in the detail. The Adversary Map generates a big-picture view so you've always got some common ground to start from. It also keeps people from focusing in on one small subset of the plot or setting to the exclusion of all else, because they get a subtle weekly reminder that there's a lot more out there on the edges that they haven't explored yet. Should the players get stuck anyway, it's an easy thing for the GM to point at two or three different pins or photos and say "if you start shaking the clue tree in one of these spots,  I guarantee you something interesting will fall out". That's a little heavy handed, so I wouldn't do it unless they'd really hit a wall, but it's nice to know that you've got that option hanging on the wall to refocus them if the PCs are feeling lost or caught up in analysis paralysis. I love this this mechanic. It's both an immersive tool and a safety net for when I get too clever for my own (or my players) good.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Blog In The Saddle Again

Now that my commute is about two hours a day shorter than it had been (I've moved much closer to work), I think I'm going to try a bit of blogging again. I'll start by telling you about my latest RPG campaign...

I recently started a new campaign of Night's Black Agents, the spies-vs-vampires RPG from Pelgrane. Our fourth session meets this weekend (at my new apartment). The game is off to a great start.

My players include some very strong character-actors, and they seem to be really enjoying themselves with the slow-burn horror of trying to convince themselves that the supernatural forces arrayed against them really are supernatural (and specifically vampires) and not just some elaborate psy-op. In my previous NBA campaigns (this is the third I've run), I've felt the need to throw overt and obvious vampirism into the PC's paths very early on, usually the first or second session, to start the game with a bang. Not this time. I'm taking the vampirism slow, and been just focusing on creepy but deniable supernatural evil thus far, as well as a tangled web of counter-intelligence operations. Part of the reason for this new pacing is because, as mentioned, I have the right play group for it. The other half of the explanation is because for this game I've we're using what is probably the coolest RPG sourcebook ever published: Dracula Unredacted, and it enables a very unique play structure and pacing.

Dracula Unredacted is part of The Dracula Dossier, a collection of tools for running a freeform improvised campaign built around the notion that in 1894, British Naval Intelligence tried (and failed) to recruit a Vampire as an asset. You hand the players (not just their characters) a copy of this after-action report from that mission, annotated by at least three generations of spies, and let the players (and their characters) decide what parts of the "novel" to dive into. Do they poke around London and Whitby searching for corroborating evidence that this document is legit? Do they cross the border into Romania and attempt a raid on Castle Dracula? Do they stalk Dracula's leave-behind-network of criminals and undead minions, as hinted and mapped by Stoker's manuscript? Do they seek out the retired operative that ran MI-6's attempt to pit Dracula against Hitler in WWII, as referenced in the annotations? There's a million directions you can take the campaign, and the accompanying Director's Handbook features multiple competing interpretations of every NPC, location or organization mentioned in the Unredacted version of the novel, so as GM you always have multiple ideas at your fingertips no matter where the players decide to take the plot. The players are in control of where the plot goes, and the GM has everything they need to make sure the game is exciting and intriguing along the way.

In the first session of my campaign, the PCs raided a German BND safe-house, got their hands on an antique manuscript that can't be judged by its cover, fought off "trained attack rats" (that's the rational explanation they decided on, any way), and escaped pursuit by killing an MI-6 scuba team. In the second session they smuggled a hypnotized fugitive asset across the border, won big in Monaco, and stumbled into the aftermath of a botched operation involving the CIA and the Romanian SIE. In the third session they encountered another unusual rat; this time it was draining the blood of their fugitive asset / former employer. They chased it off, got the hell out of Monaco, and covered their tracks once again. Then they decided to double-back and trace the movements and actions of some of the opposition assets they encountered in the first session. This weekend, my PCs will be running a surveillance op against the "Median Empire" outlaw motorcycle club, as that gang conducts some sort of mission at the Chateau D'If, the famous "Count of Monte Cristo" prison island in France. Going in to the mission, they don't know if the bikers are mundane criminal types, vampiric Renfields, or some entirely other sort of supernatural working either for or against the vampires. Heck, the PCs aren't even certain that vampires exist yet. It's kinda awesome how much time they spend debating the notion that it might all be just a tandem psy-op and pilot animal-control technology program. Man am I having fun in this campaign.

I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say about it in the coming weeks.