The urge to write a review has struck again! I have read quite a few horror games over the month of October and I found another gem I wanted to tell you guys about. Night’s Black Agents is written by Kenneth Hite and was born by the designer “watching the Bourne movies obsessively.” I’m not sure where the second half of the same spawned from. But at some point, Ken said to himself, you know what a super-secret-agent game needs? Vampires!
The set up is you and your party are a team of super-secret-agents (think Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Mission Force). During your last official operation, you and your team discover a bit of bad news. Vampires are real, they are in control of the world, and the bloodsuckers want to kill you for knowing they exist. Much like every movie in the Mission: Impossible series, your characters become disavowed and spend the remainder of the campaign using your super-secret-agent skills to destroy the vampire conspiracy. Simple, right?
I’ve been over the Gumshoe system before (Do You Want to Know More?). It is a very rules-light game that only uses a single six-sided dice. During character creation, you put points into skills which come in two flavors: Investigative skills, which you don’t typically need to roll to use, and General Abilities, which do require a roll. Your skills also form a pool of points that you can use to gain new information or to lower the difficulty of a roll. It’s a fast, simple system which makes it easy to generate new content. The best additional skill in this game is Preparedness, which really helps set the tone for a spy thriller. Basically, your character is a spy but you, as a player, are not. So the Preparedness skill allows you to pull out that night vision goggle, or cut the power at the right time, or do whatever else a super spy would have prepared for ahead of time. It keeps the game moving and gives you those cool spy-movie twists where you realize that the main characters knew what was going to happen and were in control the whole time.
The game also has a very robust vampire creation system, which allows the Gamemaster to build any form of vampire they wish, be it mutant, alien, or damned soul. No two games of NBA will be quite alike, as some may run games where the vampires are “realistic” mutants that have no supernatural abilities, and others may run a game of vampire alien parasites who feed off of psychic energy.
The chapter in NBA called Conspiracies makes it worth the price of entry alone. The best part is that these campaign rules have nothing to do with the Gumshoe system, so they can be ported over to any other game easily.
To give your campaign direction, you build a conspiracy pyramid, or a Conspryamid as the game calls it. These are the layers of the Vampire Conspiracy that the players encounter as they work their way up to the top. The Conspryamid has 6 layers, with the bottom rung having 6 parts, the second layer having 5, the next having 4, and so on, until the very top which has the head of the Vampire Conspiracy. It forces the game master to come up with the basic framework of the Vampire Conspiracy. The players may not see it all, but it is a neat method of giving players some choice when they start picking at the bottom of what the Vampires are up to.
Along with the Conspyramid, Night’s Black Agents brings us the Vampyramid, which is set up in a similar way as a guide for how the Vampires will react to the players’ actions. As the players work up the Conspyramid, they will simultaneously move up the Vampyramid. The low level responses might just be sending some goons after them, but at upper levels, the Vampires might try to harm family members, turn associates into Vampires, or get one of the players to turn on the rest of the group.
These two campaign frames basically build your Night’s Black Agents game, which is what sets this game apart from most RPGs I have read. This game is designed from the ground up, to have a beginning (tiers 5 & 6 of the Conspyramid), a middle (tiers 3 & 4), and an end (tiers 1 & 2). As a Game Master, you build a campaign which is supposed to have an end in sight. Most games use the old-school idea that your campaign is open ended and will go on forever. But this system tells you how to build an endgame for your campaign from the get-go, which is something I’ve always tried to do, so its great when the game helps you do so.
The last part of this game is Heat. Your party’s Heat score is kind of like the police badge icons in Grand Theft Auto. The more gun fights you’re in and the more minions you kill in a given city, the more likely it is that the local police are going to notice your presence. The Game Master can roll, or if you want to be more evil and have the players roll, a heat check at any point once per game. If the check fails, the police will show up, in force, when it’s really inconvenient.
Night’s Black Agents is really good and it is on the short list of games I really want to run. It gives you a lot of rules and ideas to run a spy-thriller game really well. All of the ideas can be easily used for any other role-playing game system. For a non-traditional D&D game, you could incorporate the Conspyramid & Vampyramid easily into the setting. And instead of a Vampyramid, you could create a Sauronamid, or a Sithramid, or any other Bad-Guy-ramid. I highly recommend checking out this game for the tons of neat ideas that you can use to give any game you run a spy-thriller feel.