Continuing my general break from Trail of Cthulhu, I decided that I wanted to have a second go at the cherry in running the excellent Night’s Black Agents. This is also because with the recent conclusion of my Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I am actually going to be running a full campaign of Night’s Black Agents in future. So digging off some of the rust and reminding myself how it worked in a one shot, which does in fact tie directly in with the upcoming game, seemed like a very good idea.
Additionally, as one of the players who was able to come to this was in the regular NBA game, it made sense to be able to give them an opportunity to learn the rules beforehand as well. This meant that when playing outside of one other player who had tried the system before, there was someone else already familiar with the basics of how the game worked and could help teach it to the other players. One shots are good for learning the system, because there isn’t any expectation that the characters or game needs to continue. So you can accelerate the pace of things like thriller chases, combat and similar to demonstrate many of the rules without having to worry about long term consequences.
Nightfall begins with the NSA recruiting the agents to investigate a former CIA and NSA analyst called Dr. Oliver Scholten. Currently Scholten works at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in an academic life, studying ancient biblical works and apocryphal gnostic texts. Although his work is seemingly irrelevant to issues of national security and he’s not been with the agency for a while, he still knows a lot of secrets. Secrets that the US Government would rather not ever come to light again as they could seriously compromise several long running operations. So when rumors emerged of secret meetings between Dr. Scholten and a mysterious unidentified woman, the government became very concerned he was selling his knowledge to potential enemy agents.
The team of operatives, who had all worked together, was promptly put together and sent on the next flight to Washington DC. Arriving at the airport and assembling at the agreed upon rendezvous, the agents quickly decided to head straight to the Smithsonian and investigate Dr. Scholten’s activities directly. The initial group of three, with the last agent – Green – arriving a little later into the operation was:
Ali – Asset Handler
Morgan – Wetworker
Varoutte – Black Bagger
Green – Medic
Once at the Smithsonian, the first thing the agents noticed was that there was a series of public education lectures being held at the museum and Dr. Scholten was set to give one the next day. Here the players more or less derived their own plan spontaneously based on this initial information. Firstly they decided to attend some lectures to convincingly post as curious members of the public. Secondly, while Scholten was giving his lecture to the public, Ali and Varoutte were going to sneak into his office while Morgan kept an eye on the lecture (and Scholten). Having time to wait around was an excellent opportunity to use some research skills to just learn more about Scholten in general.
Here I allowed the players to gather some important general information about him, such as his area of expertise in old texts – noting that his original occupation was a code breaker -, the fact he is married with two children, his wife was a biochemist at Washington State University and that his lab had some major funding issues until he came across a very old text called “Vera prodi lesu Christi” or “The true betrayal of Jesus Christ”. Nothing about him suggested that he was compromised by the Russians, Chinese or other potential intelligence agencies.
At this point if there was one thing I probably should have prompted or encouraged, was to use some interpersonal skills on various NPCs (like some of Dr. Scholten’s students) around the Smithsonian. This would have revealed some other information, notably about the fact Dr. Scholten works very late hours – rarely appearing early in the morning but very often staying until 9pm or 10pm at night. Others would have commented on his odd behavior, most notably his vitamin B12, Vitamin C and Vitamin E additions. Additionally until a few months ago, he was known to be a vegetarian but has started to eat a very red meat rich diet. Plus there is also that ridiculous scarf he’s taken to constantly wearing around his neck.
Although none of the above is actually that important to anything, it does highly suggest to the later events and is some interesting world building as well (as it possibly hints Vampires like these things in their subjects blood). The most important clue they would have got is that Dr. Scholten’s contact was generally not seen around the Smithsonian – they were only seen together off campus. His students knew her to be someone with a lot of money and was apparently essential in the grant, but they did wonder why she never turned up at the museum herself very often. If asked about the above information, his student would have confirmed Scholten’s odd behaviour began after the mysterious blonde woman arrived.
Again, the above information was all stuff I could have given at this point of the operation as well, but I didn’t strongly emphasize the use of the interpersonal skills for this situation so the players didn’t pursue it. This possibly turned out for the best though as this scenario ended up being a bit time constrained and the above exposition would have slowed down the pace quite a lot. It also turned out to be not that relevant, because the plan at the lecture and breaking into the office (via infiltration) worked extremely well. A bit of hacking later and Ali broke into the personal computer of Dr. Scholten.
From the computer they were able to download his research files, contact details and break into his skype account. The skype account confirmed something they already suspected, that Dr. Scholten wasn’t truly “working” late but that he was having an affair with another woman. This woman was also the one he had been giving access to the text he was currently studying and had a very peculiar interest in it. Perhaps surprisingly to the agents, they couldn’t find any information suggesting that there were other agencies involved or that he was trying to sell US secrets. Her agenda seemed to be focused on the book he had access too.
In this scene there were two core clues that I wanted to make sure to give to the agents to advance the storyline. The first was that Scholten was having a meeting with his contact at the Crimson Palace Hotel that night at 9pm. The second was that Scholten felt he was being pursued by an unknown other party, who bore tattoos or pins with a strange symbol on them. He had thankfully drawn it somewhere and had a post-it note to ask “Ivonne” about it when he saw her that night:
For those of you who are World of Darkness fans of the Vampire: The Masquerade variety, you’ll recognize the above symbol as belonging to the Sabbat. Of course in this game I’m not quite using it for the same purpose, but I do think it’s a damn cool symbol and I wanted to use it for my own game. A good tip for DMing is to re-purpose ideas, symbols, maps and other resources from other games for your own. A good reason for doing so is that it greatly reduces your own preparation time and lets you focus on the other things you really want (or need) to make! I also happen to love the above symbol, as it’s very intimidating and more than appropriate for a secret society in a Night’s Black Agents style horror game.
Of course while Ali and Varoutte were having a look around in the office, Morgan was sitting in one of the most boring lectures he had ever attended. I definitely tried to sell Dr. Scholten as rather disinterested in what was going on in the lecture and that he was extremely agitated. The man was frequently checking the exits, constantly fiddling with a strange (and out of place) looking scarf around his neck and eventually ended up cutting his hour long lecture short by about 25 minutes. Even though there was supposed to be a Q&A, most people had lost the plot of whatever he was talking about by so much they were simply relieved it was going to be over.
The lecture being over wasn’t good news for the agents though and immediately signaled to them it was time to move on. This is actually a good “organic” kind of trick that you can use in GUMSHOE games to signal to players “Okay, you’ve got all the relevant information you can get, it’s time to move on now” as opposed to more direct ways such as directly stating “This scene is done” or the scene card approach. Of course, I find it rather difficult to always put things like this into the game and in the interest of pacing, don’t be afraid to just go “I think you have all the relevant information from this place, so what are you going to do next?”. Often without prompting players to move onwards with the operation or investigation, things can very easily stagnate into trying to find every piece of minutiae that might be hidden.
Interestingly enough and possibly because many of these players were actually from my Trail of Cthulhu game, the agents were very paranoid about leaving any traces of their passing. They stole a passkey to get into Scholten’s offices, but made sure to make a forgery and leave the real one where it could be easily found (basically implying the guard dropped it by accident). While Ali left some keystroke recording worms on the computer, they otherwise made sure to wipe off prints, take pictures of documents and otherwise return things to their proper place. This meant that I didn’t really feel the need to bring any of the HEAT system from NBA into effect for much of the operation: They were covering their tracks pretty well!
With the meeting place for Scholten and his mysterious contact known, the players raced over to the Crimson Palace Hotel – which turned out to be one of those places couples go who want to remain anonymous for reasons – to scope it out. They used some network spends to get some electronic bugs, surveillance gear and other equipment they might need as well. Fortunately some of this was already provided when they deliberately booked and had a look at the room before Scholten arrived. Turns out the hotel was doing some extra business with its clients on the side, with a mirror above the bed having the old “Hidden Camera” trick behind it. Some quick rewiring and the camera was now a handy way to watch what was going on, while the various electronic bugs spread about the room would provide the audio.
Now with an adjacent room booked and everything set up, the agents just had to wait. It didn’t take long for Scholten to arrive, 10 minutes early and his red puffy face covered with sweat. Here I should probably have made more of a comparison with a drug addict or similar in his mannerisms, but it rather slipped my mind. Turning up afterwards, 15 minutes later was a blonde woman in a silky silver dress, who had deep brown eyes with a reddish tinge and a yellow highlight around her iris. When she passed by the agents door, where they were looking at down the hallway to see who was coming, she actually stopped and looked directly at the eye piece. Varoutte told the others not to worry, as you couldn’t see through a peep hole in a door like this from the other side anyway…
After around half a minute or so, which was a rather uncomfortable half minute it has to be said, the woman moved on and knocked on the door to Scholten’s room. He seemed extremely excited and eager to see her, but she gave him a rather cold and calculated reception. Ivonne scolded him for his lack of progress in getting her access to the book, seemingly rejecting his plea to get a “fix” from her (which the agents would soon find out what that was…). Eventually after Ivonne gained an assurance from Scholten that he would be getting her access to the ancient text soon, she decided to give the man what he seemed to want: Very hot sexual intercourse.
This would have been enough by itself to force information from Scholten at least, but when she plunged her teeth into his neck and drew copious amounts of blood, while he still seemed to have an extremely pleased expression on his face? Yeah, that’s when things went from “He’s having an affair with a creepy woman obsessed with a book” to “Holy crap, what the hell is she and what does she want?”. Especially at the end, where she tore into her wrist and seemingly forced her own blood down Scholten’s throat. At this point, my players (not the agents) were definitely speculating about her being a vampire and generally bad news, with the focus of the game becoming entirely about her.
Ali rapidly decided to follow Ivonne and see what she was doing, which was apparently getting into a taxi. At this point, Ivonne decided to dial someone and the previous bit of surveillance equipment they had (but didn’t get to use) in a comms laser was used to good effect to pick up some of her conversation. Rather predictably, Ivonne was using Scholten and found him rather repulsive, but he was getting them closer to the book. Additionally, I reinforced the clue about the “Others” looking for the book by having Ivonne bring it up as well. Of course this was also a great opportunity to insert some added drama: Ivonne clearly recognized someone had been in the room before them and that she suspected another organization was watching things.
This rather clever observation of Ivonne possibly accelerated the agents plans quite a bit and in a way I didn’t actually really anticipate. The agents rapidly decided that the best thing to do at this point was to go straight for the book as the utmost priority. In other words, steal it before either Ivonne got to it or this other lot of unknown assailants. At this point, IRL, I had another player arrive and take up the role of Green the medic. Conveniently I could easily tie this into the ongoing plot, notably by having this agent turn up with some of the equipment they needed/requested to steal the book from the Smithsonian. Glass cutters, some devices for jamming laser sensors and that sort of thing were the order of the day.
After a good nights rest, the agents decided to raid the Smithsonian’s ancient texts collection during the day. This was primarily to avoid any direct vampire related interference (assuming that Vampires can’t walk in the day of course…) and because it was probably going to be easier. Conveniently they had much of Scholten’s notes, emails and similar from his computer. Some of these contained information about the guards and general security of the tome, which despite its value was rather light despite Scholten’s protestations. So the agents waited in the car parking lot of the Smithsonian, got the drop on a couple of the guards and then took their uniforms. This made it a fairly straightforward process, even when challenged, to get into the vault with the book, cut it out from its case and make off with it before anyone really noticed.
I made this process fairly simple for a couple of reasons, because you’re probably thinking to yourself “That sounded a bit too easy”. The first is plot pacing wise: Quite honestly, I didn’t actually anticipate the agents would take this approach. Instead what I figured they would do was use the tape/recordings to the encounter with Ivonne against Dr. Scholten, forcing him to either give them the book or at least get him to lure Ivonne into a potential ambush/confrontation with the agents.
The second reason is that you might wonder why I, as the director, didn’t actually just suggest the blackmail approach to the players and there is a really simple answer: It’s more fun for your players when you let them come up with the plan and let them go with it! Don’t always be tempted to just railroad your players down your particular trail of scenes or whatever. Rolling with your players ideas is often what make an individual operation or investigation in GUMSHOE great!
At this point I let the agents go somewhere reasonably safe and just fiddle with the book for a while to try to work out why it’s important. Oddly enough, I immediately missed the “Theology” skill from Trail of Cthulhu, but compromised with a combination of Human Terrain and Research. Overall the text was talking about the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas as being a noble act, commanded to him by God and that it was the Roman’s who were truly responsible for Jesus’ death (as they perverted the course of law that Judas expected them to follow). Indeed, the text suggested that Judas was the one who was portrayed and his subsequent hanging was an act of defiance against God (as opposed to an act of guilt).
Despite the controversial lesson in theology, the agents didn’t get a lot out of this that made any sense or gave them an indication why the text was so important. At least until they started looking beyond the text and instead to what wasn’t obvious: Hidden encoded messages. Careful analysis of the text using cryptography revealed repeated symbols, patterns and numbers. When taken together, they began to reveal previously disguised passages, phrases, maps and other things. The general gist of this message being that the blood of the first traitor would lead to an endless night where no light would rise again. Suitably worried, it had taken the agents several hours to get to this point after they stole the book and they were well into the night.
Morgan’s phone then started ringing out of the blue and it wasn’t from a number he recognized. After some debate as to if they should even answer it, Morgan and Varoutte wandered well away from the safe house before answering. The woman with the French accent, who rapidly identified herself as Ivonne Delacroix, asked the agents if they happened to know about something she was interested in… like a book perhaps? Of course this conversation didn’t go quite as I expected, with Morgan telling Ivonne that she had the wrong number – she’d dialed a pizza restaurant.
Ivonne, being rather canny, immediately switched to playing along with the agents ruse and said “Oh is that the case? Well then, I’ll order an extra large meat lovers… with extra tomato sauce. Please have it delivered to room 214 in the Grand Imperial Hotel in downtown Washington DC.” Here I decided to take my players creativity in this scene and just add to it, with some interesting back and forth between Ivonne – who also attempted to warn the agents another group could be closing in on them – and Morgan. In particular, she also asked if they would be happy to provide any “Deep Red Wine” while they were at it. After she hung up, oddly enough the agents went and actually had a pizza delivered to her! That’s committing to a cover identity right there!
None the less it wasn’t long before I decided we needed to inject a little action into the game and three unknown goons, bearing the symbol that Dr. Scholten had been looking at earlier turned up at the agents safehouse. In this encounter, I decided that Morgan and Varoutte were outside after returning from taking Ivonne’s call, while Ali and Green were still inside with the book. Although the three guys who turned up were ghouls, I decided this overconfidence would be their downfall as the agents easily prepared to ambush them. Here Ali suggested that the safe house would have a rigged electrical wire trap on the front door. After some thought, I decided this just “worked” in frying the first of the ghouls because I wanted the PCs to have a chance to interrogate or talk to them after this fight. Again this was partly because it made sense and because it also helped accelerate the plot – especially because the time we had to play was running out.
So the first guy got electrocuted to unconsciousness by the trap, while the others were summarily shot, knifed and beat into several different kinds of tar. The agents did notice that even with the advantages they had, such as being in a prime ambush position and getting the drop on them, that these guys were pretty damn tough. Aside from being resilient to bullets, they also seemed to be able to rapidly generate normally fatal injuries and only the agents major advantage of surprise really prevented one from escaping. He got to the car, but a very accurate bullet from Morgan and then finally a point blank gunshot from Green finally ensured he wouldn’t be leaving.
Moving quickly to another secure safehouse, the agents interrogated the man they caught and I decided to give them some hints about the overall narrative – but of course they needed the right leveraged clue. Green soon provided this by pretending to burn pages of the book, which soon got the fellow’s tongue wagging – at least a bit. The most notable parts being that there were different groups of vampires, who have conflicting views about the way they should control humanity. Delacroix belonged to the group who felt humanity should only be nudged or persuaded along the “correct” direction, while another group whose members called themselves the “Spear of Longinus” wanted to outright rule humanity as open Gods.
Something about a grand ritual to envelop the world in a never ending night came out at this point, but the agents couldn’t make much sense of the ghoul after this. Disappointingly, other than what they already knew about these beings needing human blood, the captured member couldn’t tell them much about the “masters”, other than they were extremely dangerous. So there wasn’t much left to do but decide where they took the book and what they did with him. In both cases, the agents decided to hand them to Ivonne Delacroix faction, with a late night meeting at the Washington state monument making an uneasy alliance between the agents…. and Ivonne’s faction.
Surely this could have no major repercussions on the actual NBA game I am starting up soon? Surely not…
Overall this scenario worked great, established some interesting plot threads that I will be following up in my full campaign and introduced some new players to NBA as a system. Perhaps what interested me more came from the final scene with the agents and Ivonne. After implying the agents had an idea what she really was she nodded and then moved to bite her wrist, in order to “offer” some of her blood to them. Oddly, despite this power being directly offered none of the agents decided to take her up on it. You would have to say that was probably a very wise decision, given the state Dr. Scholton was getting into without a regular dose.