Last week I finished a 17 session series of Night’s Black Agents on the Gauntlet Gaming Calendar. It’s the longest online series I’ve run here. I didn’t run straight NBA, but instead played with the "Express" hack I talked about in a previous post. Most of what I wrote there applies—with a few minor tweaks. You can see the character keeper for it here.
I want to give my impressions of the series in three areas: mechanics, modules, and mystery play. All of the players did a dynamite job—we had a strongly consistent crew across the five session prologue and the 12 session main adventure. I’ve put together a video playlist of the sessions, so if you dig AP you can watch those. I have to give a big shout out to Will H for doing a conspiracy board in Miro. To say it was complicated would be an understatement.
Overall I’m 85-90% satisfied with the system as it stands. In great part it does what I want this kind of game to do. I want a game which balances investigation and action play. In GUMSHOE you have a heavy split between the mechanics for investigation resolution and standard resolution. That means in play at least 50% of the energy should be coming from investigation scenes. While I don’t think it exactly held that way for what we did, I was generally pleased (but I’ll come back to the question of mysteries as play in part two).
- The economy of the numbers worked pretty well (at the start, see below). By that I mean the pool of points got to distribute. We played 2-3 sessions before players got a full refresh of their pools. They got a minor between session refresh and we also add a mechanic for key support NPCs who could be tagged each mission to give players another small refresh. We had several sessions where the players came out by the skin of their teeth. That scrabbling for resources is a play feature of GUMSHOE and one I dig. We had at least one player who didn't dig that, but it's a basic play objective.
- I still don’t know if my chase system works. It’s a failure on my part that we never really got to a chase scene—I had a couple of opportunities but let the circumstances pull away. Theoretically it should work OK. But I’m always worried about PbtA resolutions which require multiple rolls. OOH a single roll couldn’t contain the full drama of a chase. I should just break down and test it independently of the series.
- In between the five session prologue and the 12 session main campaign, I tweaked the Talents. I mostly made a few of the weaker talents more effective. Now having seen the talents in play, I need to go back and tweak a few in the other direction. We have a couple which are either super-effective or significantly more generally useful than others. That's a hard thing to balance. I should also go through and note which talents no one took.
- On a related note, I didn’t limit the number of talents each character could have. I suspect I’ll do that going forward. While they’re cool, there’s diminishing returns in having too many. First, it makes it harder to figure out what you can actually do with them at any moment. It’s a lot of cognitive load to scan through eight+ talents. Second, you always feel a little like you wasted your spends if you don’t use a talent in a mission. The more you have, the more likely some are going to go unused.
- On a related note I need to dial down experience and advancement. Players ended up with too many extra points and talents by the end of 17 sessions (and seven missions iirc). The numbers I set for worked for a short game, but not for a longer one. In our debrief we talked about reducing the amount of gain or escalating the costs over time. While the latter might be more effective, it's also more complex.
- In our debrief we also talked about ways to make the different character’s backgrounds—Blackbagger, Hitter, Face, etc.-- have more weight. We batted around each role getting some different caps on ability spends, making certain talents available only to specific roles, having role-dedicated talents, and so on. Those are all worth looking at. I might again look at Conspiracy X’s “Pulling Strings” talents. Another variant would be that any particular talent could only be taken by two players (or maybe one for certain talents).
- The biggest mechanic note is that damage didn’t work well. It felt tight in a couple of places but the options on the table made things too easy. Having two stress tracks (physical and mental) meant that we usually forgot about the latter. Combining those into one track would help. I had a mechanic where players could mark one of the three conditions to negate a hit but that ended up allowing players to shrug off damage. I'll reserve conditions for hard moves.
- It was also pretty easy—between spends and talents--- to clear damage. That needs to feel more dangerous and difficult to manage. I tried to make it feel dangerous by borrowing the damage mechanic from The Sprawl. Basically when you take a hit, you roll to see how badly you’re affected. In play I shifted the threshold for the roll so that it happened less frequently. If we rolled it for every hit, it broke the flow. I might shift it another degree or cut it entirely.
This section contains spoilers for Night’s Black Agents modules and sourcebooks. But not too much.
For the five session prologue of the campaign, I reworked the first adventure from NBA: Solo Ops. It’s a great module with interesting set pieces and a solid through line. But it’s also a solo adventure so I retooled it heavily. To do so I used one of my favorite approaches to modules: exploring the ideas and moving them to the outside or inverting them.
For example, for modern horror and supernatural adventures, I’ve had the players not as the front line investigators but instead the crew which follows to figure out what went wrong or clean up the scene. I’ve done adventures which tweak the heroic cast of the original to show how something ignores the fascist implications. The players take down what would be heroic from some perspectives. I’ve also taken classic sci-fi stories and had the players interacting with them (with the serial numbers filed off). For example I did a couple of sessions of a Star Trek game with the crew interacting with a world based on Zelazny’s Lord of Light. You can also take splat series-- like Promethean from nWoD or Orpheus from WoD-- and make them into an enigma to be explored.
Solo Ops was a little easier. I kept much of the same structure: an agent with memory loss tries to figure out what’s going on and escape captors. But in my version the players are a team sent in to help that agent, but they know almost nothing about the whole story. So they have to discover who this person is and why they’re wanted as well as figure out a way to protect and extract them.
It worked really well—though I did have a major issue. Originally I’d assumed that the adventure would take two sessions. That proved to be a gross underestimate. But it wouldn’t quite fill the five sessions we had—so I had to do some serious juggling and add in a few extra threats to make that work. It's one of the biggest GMing challenges for me: I'm a terrible judge of how long sections of a published adventure will actually take.
But after that prologue, I had a new set of problems. I had twelve sessions in front of me. I knew I wanted to run from published Pelgrane material. I mean, I already bought the stuff, why not use it? I expected to cut and modify the material but I wanted a template to go from. That left three options.
- The Dracula Dossier: It’s great, it’s massive, and it also requires a ton of thinking and work. You have to absorb a lot to do the necessary improv with it at the table. It also has the disadvantage of building on a massive amount of written material. Trail of Cthulhu’s Armitage Files works because we have a series of discrete documents. DD has an annotated book, plus potentially the EDOM handbook and parts of the Hawkins Papers. That’s too much to drop on an online group.
- The Persephone Extraction: This is a great campaign module: interesting and new vampires, a great starter set piece, and evocative locales (Barcelona and Istanbul). BUT it has a huge problem. The whole plot turns on the release of a massive tailored plague to wipe out humanity. And there’s no way I’m going to run that right now. It’ll be years before I want to play, read, or watch any media with global pandemics.
- The Zalozhniy Quartet: The earliest campaign module and probably the best supported—with tie ins to other stories. I worked through this, made notes, and prepped it. It had a few bits which would need tweaking because some sections had serious bloat. I’d have to trim to the essentially to keep the pacing I like. BUT then it turned out one of the players was running ZQ and another player was in that game.