You can see the first part of this analysis here. Last time I talked about the Night's Black Agents hack I wrote and how that worked. Then I looked at how I started the campaign (with a five session prologue to a twelve session campaign. Note that this discussion contains spoilers for some published NBA adventures.
WHAT I RAN
In the end, I decided to run using The Persephone Extraction. As I said last time, it had the strongest initial set up and the most interesting kinds of vampires. The Orphic Vampires offer the players real opportunities for mystery and discovery. Classic vampire rules don’t entirely hold true for them. They come from a more mystic, pre-Christian tradition. Combating the Orphic also allow for interesting confrontations, since they use human hosts in a unique way.
Persephone wouldn’t work as well for a start of campaign adventure—the first scenario assumes the PCs have been in the spotlight or attracted enough attention to be useful scapegoats. Since I’d already run a prologue adventure, I played off the fallout from that. Interestingly having a new player in the team of four created a cool dynamic. While the opposition knew the other three PCs involved, the new one hadn’t yet popped up on their radar.
The basics of the first adventure (Persephone has a sequence of five): the PCs learn someone has been using their identity for multiple purchases and appearances in Paris. The group arrives to discover there’s an elaborate set up framing them for an assassination and a bombing. They can get to the former and find evidence of supernatural weirdness, but it takes a little longer for them to reach the bombing site to prevent it.
It’s a scenario that pays off early leg work because there’s a lot going on.
- Someone is using their identities to frame them for an attack. Who?
- The target of the attack has some kind of Vampiric connection. Why were they attacked?
- What’s the deal with these vampires?
- Why blow up that particular building?
- Where did the target of the assassination escape to?
I decided to table the question of what the new plot was instead of the bioweapon. That could wait a few sessions to work out. It would be something more supernatural, ritual, and small scale. Devastating, but not to the world—just Europe, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East. So I set that aside for the moment. But the more important question remained: who actually set them up, if not Dissidents?
I decided to make that EDOM, the sinister organization from the Dracula Dossier. It made sense that they would want to dispense with their vampiric competition. While not in EDOM’s pocket directly, the vampire the PCs fought in the prologue would have been on their radar and a sometimes asset. When the PCs created lots of noise in Bucharest, it would have put them in EDOM's crosshairs—and made them solid patsies for the operation. If they got caught, great. If they went free they’d still be pointed at the Orphics.
So here’s where I got too clever for my own good.
Specifically there was an open question about what was going on in the lab which the players were set up to have bombed. (And which did end up getting blown up with two PCs inside). That got me thinking about the assassination plot’s target, Morgane (a Loyalist). The big picture of the overall plot was still unfocused so I had some room and I started to wiggle things around.
I decided there had to be some significance to the Morgane's research. It would be biological/biochemical which would help fill in some of the cracks from extracting the Bioweapon stuff. I decided EDOM wanted Morgane’s information, but more wanted a McGuffin project taken out of circulation.
What was the McGuffin project? I had two lines for that—one of them based on some hints I’d dropped about Morgane’s work in in vitro fertilization. She would be the key to an older project which had EDOM connections—and which she’d then started working on later with the Orphic Vampires. The other line would be modifications to EDOM’s Renfield serum. They'd tried to improve it through different gene lines back in the 1990s (that particular detail would get expanded and developed later).
I’d already started to make this overly complicated, so I doubled down. Within EDOM there would be two operations running. On the one side would be classic EDOM— doing Dracula Dossier behind the scenes work. They used vampires for operations striking at terrorist targets (among others).
The other side would be a group which had suborned part of EDOM. In this I drew inspiration from a separate stand-alone NBA adventure, but ended up dumping everything except for names and a cool set piece scene. This group, which I’ll call the Corporate, had manipulated things and were working to get more details, names, and information on Morgane’s project (or actually the project of her mentor which had occurred a couple of decades earlier).
They wanted the names of the persons who had been part of this in virto research. Specifically they wanted to get ahold of any children born using vampiric blood and genetic material—in the hopes of maybe getting a super Renfield or a more potent blood source. The Corporate were part of an EDOM front company, but they’d also been doing side deals and corrupting the main EDOM group. They served the real Lord of the Vampires, the one from which the classic vamps had actually come: Lilith.
There was another bit of plot with Lilith relating to the three bloodlines of her daughters—which I would bring back at the end to connect up with the Orphic Vampires. Essentially Lilith had put the seals on the Orphic Vampires and now they needed the blood lines of her three key “Daughters” to unseal it.
Follow all that?
The challenge this created was a whiplashing between elements of the Greek Conspiracy and trying to untangle the EDOM connection. After Paris from the Persephone Extraction, the players dropped the Orphic line and ran down the EDOM leads for several sessions. We had a couple of really good scenes there and I hinted at some of the materials from the Dracula Dossier.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the challenges of the Dossier is the sheer volume of written material it could require players to go through. Instead of using Dracula Unredacted, I instead first seeded a couple of pages from the EDOM Field Manual—which helped explain some things. But then I chose three short pieces from the Hawkins Papers. I thought these would be interesting to run down and explore. That was a mixed success. Three players enjoyed going through the material and parsing it out, while one player pretty much shut down for that session.
Which brought us to a crossroads. The players could now decide to follow the Orphic Path or the EDOM conspiracy. I tried to keep an open mind and prepared for whichever way they decided to jump. They were already in the second leg of the Persephone campaign, having gone to Barcelona. After some discussion and clarification of the stakes, the decided to go after the Orphics—and they got pointed to the next stage in the story, Istanbul. At that point I had four sessions left—which meant I could do two in Istanbul and two in the final Greek location from the original campaign (I’d cut the third scenario set in Russia as it focused completely on the bioweapon stuff).
Then we hit a snag.
We’d ended the session with the players aware of the situation and the stakes regarding the Orphic conspiracy. Essentially the conspiracy planned to perform a ritual which would unseal the gates to the Underworld and allow shades to spill across the land. They’d learned Istanbul was the next hub for this. I’d planned to hard frame them hitting the ground in Turkey at the start of the next session. However in between sessions some of the players started chatting.
They were dissatisfied with the situation they were leaving on the ground in Barcelona. Even though it was clear that the targets there were tangential to the big plan, they wanted to hit them. And quite honestly really just blow someone up. This went back and forth, but I assumed they’d land on going to Istanbul when we actually got to the session and they analyzed the situation. But I didn’t want to step in and short circuit their choices.
As you’re probably guessing, it didn’t roll out that way. Three of the four players leaned into wanting to strike a blow in Barcelona. The fourth, a little beaten down, finally agreed they could do what they wanted and sat back for the ride. I ended up having to do some heavy steering because the players hadn’t done a lot of on-the-ground intelligence analysis prior to this. I scrambled to find a path they could take and eventually improvised a more isolated, doable, and discrete target. I folded in some earlier details and made it hold together OK.
The problem now lay in managing the finale for a couple of reasons. I had two parts of the campaign module, both of which had interesting elements I really wanted to use. I also wanted to make sure the following session switched the focus and pacing. The player who’d sat out the previous session had more soft, interpersonal skills and I needed to make sure I gave them opportunities. But now I had three sessions to do all this.
I managed to work this decently. I think. I had some hooks at the start of session 10 which pulled on PC backstories a little more. The group did a good investigation, gathered resources, and flipped a member of the conspiracy (which was great and I wish I’d been able to put more of those options in their path). Session 11 was interesting because our social character was absent—so we gave our break-in artist character some spotlight and then had a long "barge into the lair and slay some vampires" sequence. The former scene, though, suffered at the hands of the dice. The player got the core clue, but ended up cut off before they could get more of the useful info present. I ended up having to scrub some bits which they could have naturally found and put the info in the mouth of a later NPC.
For session 12 I dumped the finale section of the written campaign, except for the location details. I reworked elements from the Istanbul adventure which played on the PCs' backstories in magical hallucinations. The book leaves those a little more illusionary, but I made them ritual magic set of choices giving them gifts or insights for the final fight. Then we had a big fight where I revealed (a little) of Dracula’s role as more of a rebel errand boy of Lilith. And two of the PCs died heroically in the final confrontation.
A few meta-thoughts on running NBA, gamemastering, and handling mysteries
- If I run again, I suspect I’ll do it outside of Europe. There’s an interconnectedness to Europe that cuts against difficult travel as an obstacle. Persephone does give us some off the beaten path settings with Barcelona and Istanbul. But I might move further afield to put characters out of their comfort zone. One player suggested South America, but I’d probably look at Asia first. There’s such differences in culture and governance there because of the sheer size and diversity. It would give me new tools for creating contrasts between locations.
- Pacing. Pacing. Pacing. It’s really important. From time to time I see those “what’s your GM skill?” questions. For me I think one’s definitely pacing. Switching rhythm from fast to slow, keeping action scenes tight, intercutting between scenes. It’s a particular kind of traffic management. Games like Night’s Black Agents have heavier GM hand at the tiller. Using a PbtA based resolution loosens that up, but you still have to do more management than in many indie games.
- If players don’t buy into to the game’s purpose, you’re going to have a tougher time as a GM. RPGs can have game objectives built into them. For example, Champions assumes a value in a certain kind of tactical, resource management combat. If that’s not what a player wants out of the game, there’s going to be a collision. And that’s not one that you can fix with a tone discussion, talking game objectives, and getting player collaboration at the start. It’s a basic element.
- In mystery games, the process of investigating and gathering information is a key game focus. It’s what you will be doing and it’s what the game is selling as the enjoyable part. Finding clues, putting together pieces, slowly accruing information—that’s a big portion of the game. But if you have players who don’t assign value to that or think those activities waste time or block the road to action scenes, you’ve got a problem. That’s especially true when you have different players with strikingly different senses of what’s fun and valuable to play in a game.
- I’m not sure what the answer is to that, except that as a game facilitator you may have to recognize and have a conversation with players who have a different sense of what the game ought to be versus what you plan on running. I’m all in favor of adjusting to player desires and moving the target to what’s fun for the group, but you have to recognize when that shift has drastically shifted from what you envisioned.
- My hack created an interesting dissonance between the intent of GUMSHOE and the intent of PbtA. The former expects slow gathering of details. Core clues move you from one scene to another, but you have to supplement that by carefully gathering additional details using the group’s varied Investigative Abilities. If you don’t then when you actually get to the end, you may be bewildered by what’s happening or unprepared for the foe you face. Because of the value the game places on this, we slow down when we come to that material. OOH the impetus of PbtA is a kind of speed and compactness. We set the scene, establish the stakes, play out the drama before moving to a single roll which often settles the question. It highlights on the dramatic beats and not the gritty details. Where GUMSHOE’s action resolution is often discrete and accumulative, a PbtA resolution moves from key point to key point. (Note: NBA: Solo Ops takes a more all-or-nothing approach to action resolution, but may work because you’re working to the rhythm of a single player).
- Another tension comes from a gamefeel element of suspense and thriller games: surprise and uncertainty. Classic games often ask for a roll without full explanation of the stakes---the player knows something’s up. The intent is to create worry and uncertainty. PbtA works against that because it’s generally an active rather than a reactive game. The surprise only comes when the GM pulls out something from a hard move. Or at least that’s how some players have come to accept it. I had one player who objected to my use of rolls where I didn’t clearly establish the stakes. But for me that's part of the structure of a game like this-- creating uncertainty. I need to find a medium place between those two poles—one where I do a better job of setting up the context for a role while stilling leaving some mystery.
Again all this being said, I enjoyed running the campaign. I would do it again—though not this story. I have to tweak the rules and I know I need to set expectations more clearly at the start. I think overall I did a pretty good job—and the hack held together for the most part. I’m glad I got a chance to use a lot of my NBA materials though there’s still more out there.