Night’s Black Agents has been bugging me for several years now. It’s a great premise and the books are amazingly well written. But it’s also arguably the GUMSHOE iteration with the most crunch, rules specifics, and details. That combined with the single d6 resolution made me steer away from running it. I bought all the books, but never ran or played.
But I'm determined to get it to the table—to retune it, not do a full hack. I’ve been doing the same thing with 7th Sea and L5R (which I’ll talk about in other posts). Much of this retuning draws from the amazing Solo Ops which does some really cool stuff with the NBA system. I love SO for one-on-one games—I wasn’t sure how it would work adapted to a larger group. I think it would require rebalancing and maybe using fewer of the cards/aspect things (though The Yellow King uses these mechanisms).
Anyway, a handful of objectives shaped this:
- I wanted small ability lists.
- I wanted to use the pool/push mechanic from TKiY.
- I wanted a more straight line harm system
- I wanted a resolution system with more than one die and degrees of success. In this case I lifted PbtA structures.
- I wanted a combat system with less crunch but with some tactical considerations handled broadly.
For most rolls we use the following move. It will be custom modified on the fly.
- 10+ Full Success
- 7-9 Mixed Success. This is success with a cost you must pay. Costs include: injury, alerting foes, heat, burning cover, debt, reduced effectiveness, extra time, etc. This is chosen by the GM. In some cases the GM may ask if you wish to carry through with that cost. If so, you may decline and the action stops.
- 6- Miss. Failure. You suffer the consequences of your action.
Combat works a little differently. Individual foes and the group as a whole have stress tracked by the GM. At the start of the conflict we decide two things. A) Superiority: Does one side have overwhelming strength and abilities. This is about weaponry, armor, supernatural powers, vampiric strength. That determines what move you make to engage in combat. B) Edge: Does one side have a positional, informational, or awareness edge on the other side? Do the bad guys have people everywhere, do they have clear communications, etc.? If the bad guys have that, then players roll combat with disadvantage. If the players have that, they may roll with advantage.
Strength is harder to change in a combat, but actions may be taken to neutralize it. Edge can shift between players. If the bad guys have the edge, the GM sets a clock for it (usually four tics). Actions may be taken to fill that clock and remove the edge. Then the players may choose to work to fill another clock to gain the edge. Costs for actions may be paid in gaining or losing tics on the respective clocks.
Combat Against a Superior Foe
- On a 12+ deal harm and choose one: suffer no harm, change the environment, give advantage forward to someone (including yourself)
- On a 10-11 Exchange harm with your foe. You may narrate position and circumstances.
- On a 7-9 Choose: deal no harm but you get to narrate how you are pushed back or deflected OR exchange harm with your foe and suffer an additional cost (bad positioning, changed focus, etc)
- On a 6- You suffer the full brunt of your failure—harm, a condition or burden, and a GM reaction..
- On a 12+ Deal harm to your foe and suffer no harm. Choose two: deal more harm, take or give advantage forward, shift the edge, reposition the conflict, other benefit as negotiated.
- On a 10-11 Deal harm to your foe and choose two: deal more harm, suffer no harm, take or give advantage forward, shift the edge, reposition the conflict, other benefit as negotiated.
- On a 7-9 Deal harm to your foe and choose one: deal more harm, suffer no harm, take or give advantage forward, shift the edge, reposition the conflict, other benefit.
- On a 6- Suffer harm and deal no harm.
- On a 12+ you dispatch them without a scratch. Take advantage forward.
- On a 10-12 deal harm and change the positioning to your benefit.
- On a 7-9 choose: deal harm, force them in a direction, pin them down helplessly.
- On a 6- choose: exchange harm with them or deal no harm. Then the GM reacts.
If the PCs are collectively trying to escape or pursue, we use a special sequence. If they’re split in any way we use standard resolution. Why? Dramatic reasons.
For the Chase/Getaway, we have three exchanges to resolve the full sequence. We stop off in each exchange to establish the fiction and color the results. Each round one player’s the primary roller-- the person we’ve got the camera on. If the group’s together, a player can Support by describing how they’re helping (if they’re not driving then they’re shooting, mapping, etc). If we have players in different locations then we divide them into three sets. We alternate between players in each exchange.
The PCs begins with a score of 1. Each exchange adds to the final result total. A 10+ result adds 4 points. A 7-9 result adds 2 points. A 6- result adds 1 point. Add to that the usual costs and complications of those results. So if you rolled a 6- in this part, you might take a hard move like a damage, loss of a contact, destruction of resources, or increase in heat. Ideally each of these three exchanges wouldn’t slide into another rolled move outside the sequence
In the end we total up the scores from those exchanges to resolve the final results from the Thriller Sequence. Roughly, that would be:
- If the final total is 6-, then the characters have failed. They’ve been caught or lost the target they were following.
- If the final total is 7-9, then the character succeed, but there’s a significant cost for the group. I’d probably go with a list of picked costs here.
- If the final total is 10+, then they’ve succeed completely and are scot-free or bring their quarry to ground.
Player Characters have 5 HP for Health and 5 HP for Stability. When you take harm—as the result of a failed move or cost—subtract that from your Health and/or Stability depending on the situation. Then roll the Take the Hit move at +Number of Harm taken from the blow.
The GM may also ask players to mark a condition as a cost or result of a hit. There are three of these connected to General Abilities. Injured for Physical, Shaken for Operational, and Unfocused for Specialist. These give ongoing disadvantage to abilities in that category. The latter two conditions require Shrink to recover from. Players may opt to mark one of these conditions if they’re not already marked to negate 2 damage from a hit or to skip rolling the Take the Hit Move.
Take the Hit
When you suffer harm, roll +harm suffered.
- On a 6-, just mark the harm.
- On a 7-9 you choose one: lose your footing/fall/lose control; drop something important; lose track of someone or something you’re supposed to be on top off; or give a tic of Edge to your foe.
- On a 10-11 the GM chooses one: lose your footing/fall/lose control; drop something important; lose track of someone or something you’re supposed to be on top off; give a tic of Edge or Superiority to your foe.
- On a 12+ choose one: you’re out of action: unconscious, trapped, incoherent or panicked; lose a body part; mark a conditions.
Armor and Damage
We shorthand armor possibilities. If agents have time and resources to prep, they can get body armor which will stop one harm from all sources. Being caught wearing this kind of armor will draw heat and attention. With a more significant resource spend, characters might be able to get combat armor which stops two harm—but this is bulky (disadvantage to physical actions), highly visible, and a sure way to draw heat. Players might buy more specialized armor depending on the circumstances, like neck protection or modest body armor which only applies to low-velocity attacks (like blades and fists).
A basic weapon which you can conceal easily like a knife or small pistol does one harm. Larger pistols, swords, fire axes, basic rifles, SMGs deal two harm. Nastier things do three (or even more). It’s a pretty narrow band of damage. Depending on the situation, the GM might give advantage for the use of automatic weapons in dealing with troops, shifting the edge, or pinning a group down.
Out of combat, players can clear one harm that they took in that scene if they have time and space to rest. Further healing requires a one to one spend from Medic or Shrink. Clearing conditions requires a one to one spend and some narration. Total the points spent this way. One takes an hour, two a half a day, three a day, four a three days, more becomes weeks. The GM may allow rolls (meaning a risk) to do this quicker.
In combat, players may attempt to offer quick healing. Medic requires tools and Shrink requires the ability to speak with and steady the target. Roll, but subtract the amount of harm the target’s already suffered (at most this can take it to a -2). (Note: Medic and Shrink have talents which offset this penalty)
- 12+ Restore three harm or clear a condition and restore a harm.
- 10-12 Restore two harm or clear a condition.
- 7-9 Restore one harm or clear a condition if they target has one harm taken (on either track)
- 6-Deal one harm to your target or mark a condition (on yourself or them).
If appropriate, you can spend a Push with an Investigative skill to +1 to an attempt or refresh a general ability pool by 1. Appropriate investigative spends may work to change the balance of Strength and Edge in a combat. They may be used in a chase/pursuit.
PHYSICAL (Condition: Injured)
OPERATIONAL (Condition: Shaken)
SPECIALIST (Condition: Unfocused)
Choose name, pronouns, nationality, and service (take list from books). Role is a shorthand descriptor of what your character does (use NBA backgrounds). You don’t have to write in a cover right now, you can do that later in the process.
There are four mechanical steps to making your character.
Investigative Abilities: These are broken into three groups. On the keeper, the ability names are greyed out. Pick 11 abilities you have competency and training in. You automatically begin with Notice as well. To mark that you know an ability, change the font to black show it shows up.
Investigative Pushes: You have 11 points to distribute across those three areas. If you have an ability, as per usual GUMSHOE you can always get basic info on it. But you can also spend a push to gain an extra benefit. You must spend push for a specific ability from the category pool. Spends can be to get extra info, change the situation, boost a general skill, etc. If most cases, one push will be enough. These refresh at the end of mission.
General Abilities: These are also broken into three categories. By default we assume you know all of the abilities in the Physical and Operational group. You have 16 points to spread across the three areas. When you want to make a test with a general ability which you know, you roll 2d6 at +0. If you want to roll better, you can spend points from the area pool 1 for 1 (max. +3). These pools also refresh at the end of a mission, but you can also take actions or sometimes spend from investigative skills to refresh your pool.
You pick which Specialist abilities you know. You can know up to 1 ability from the group per point you assign to the category. So if you make your Specialist pool 3, you can pick three abilities you know. Strikethrough the other ones to show you don’t know them.
Talents: Pick three talents. These are connected to General Abilities. You can only take a talent for a Specialist ability if you know that ability. These are drawn from the Cherries in the core book and Masteries in Solo Ops.