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Night's Black Agents Cover

Since I got into the excellent Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press, I started to branch out and take an interest in some of their other products. Initially it was a few forays into 13th Age and Esoterrorists, but eventually I started looking at one of their newer games: Night’s Black Agents. Night’s Black Agents is best described as a horror game of secret agents (the player characters) facing off against a vast, overwhelmingly powerful and diabolical conspiracy of Vampires who secretively control the world. Aside from being a terrific idea for a theme, it also helps immediately differentiate it from the Cthulhulian cosmic horror of Trail as well. This is mostly due to an emphasis in Night’s Black Agents (NBA) on action orientated scenes and much more readily available means to refresh general skills (like most combat abilities).

Although I have run a couple of sessions of NBA in the past, I’ve only recently had the opportunity to start a full campaign of it with the conclusion of my Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It was actually really great to see how easy a sell NBA was for this group and character creation, even with most players not familiar with GUMSHOE, took only an hour before everyone had more than playable characters. That’s always the first positive step in a campaign when character creation goes fairly smoothly straight off! This process also has a very cool twist, because as well as their player’s characters they also get some influence over the campaign’s villains: By defining what they believe is true about vampires.

So if there was something that solidified how much I loved this system and its take on both the horror and spy thriller genres, it’s the communal “villain” building aspect that it encourages. In essence, I had my players all write down five things that they believed were true about vampires. The idea is that you find out what your players expectations are about vampires and then either have the vampires live up to, or alternatively subvert, what your players think are true. Before we go any further, I did mention that sparkling vampires or any mention thereof could go exceptionally badly for the agents! In any event, here are the different lists (by agent) of what my players came up with:

Jack Bauer Jnr

  1. Likes Milk
  2. All vampires are illuminati
  3. Day vampires and night vampires
  4. Believe in horoscopes
  5. All type 0 blood type

Daina Bright

  1. Psionic abilities
  2. Advanced regeneration
  3. Familiar summoning (familiars made of milk/water elemental rules)
  4. Shape shifting
  5. Super human reflexes

Elisa Churchill

  1. Daylight aversion
  2. Charismatic
  3. Mildly OCD, neat appearance, certain repeated habits and can be predictable
  4. Leave behind a particular, yet pleasant, scent
  5. Night vision

Daniel Jackson

  1. Narcissistic and they love that there is published fiction about them
  2. Ego-maniacal with grand plans, with eccentric and intricate attention to detail
  3. Blood connoisseurs, who “age” their victims blood by drawing out their deaths
  4. Sadistic
  5. Lactose intolerant

Natasha Romanov

  1. Wooden stake to the heart kills them and causes them to explode to dust
  2. Burns in sunlight
  3. Doesn’t like body odor or kittens
  4. Melts if they touch milk
  5. Lemon!

As you can see there are a variety of responses ranging from rather serious grim horror stuff, to some things that are rather slapsticky or comedic. Of the things highlighted here, what probably stands out the most is the various “milk” related things that are all rather contradictory. Vampires are supposed to like milk, be intolerant to it and apparently melt at the same time. While this might be something the director might put in the “ignore” pile, I actually found this to be an interesting challenge on how to make relevant and interesting. This isn’t to say I decided to incorporate all of my players suggestions or make everything true – indeed remember that the point of this is to both surprise and give players things they can ‘predict’ – but I did work a lot of these elements in.

Even the things of the above lists that I’ve decided aren’t going to be true, I’ve worked into the game in various ways as myths, potential false leads or even red herrings. The great thing about mechanics to start building the world with your players like this is the neat ideas and inspiration it can give you. I honestly wouldn’t have thought to do anything with milk and again, while it doesn’t sound something appropriate for a horror game, if used well I feel it certainly will add to it. With these different traits and ideas in mind, I started to build my players ideas into my own feelings of how the vampires in this game should be.

One thing as a director of NBA you should keep in the back of your mind is that while it does have a focus on spy thriller action, it is also fundamentally a horror game. This means that in terms of power, vampires should vastly out muscle, out resource and just directly out match the agents in every meaningful respect. If initial agents are able to take out vampires from the start of the game, then you’ve made something that is possibly going too far on the “spy thriller action” side of the scale. On the other hand, you should also bear in mind that it’s not exactly any fun to instantly die in the first session to the first vampire they’ve ever seen. Horror games aren’t exactly full of tension and suspense for very long periods, especially when player characters know they’ll just die every two seconds anyway.

My biggest challenge was designing the vampires in this campaign to balance both sides of the equation from what makes NBA a great game. On one hand, they needed to be a major enough threat that the very idea of going up against a vampire was nigh suicide: Unless you were exceptionally well prepared. The other side of that coin being that they also needed to have sufficient exploitable weaknesses or disadvantages, which meant they couldn’t just outright walk all over the agents at the first opportunity they got their claws (or fangs!) into. In reality I feel this second part is handled best by an overall plot and narrative point of view, which I’ve already partly hinted at with the one shot campaign, Nightfall.

Speaking of those NBA one shots I did, my next complication was then to decide what from the previous two one shots I ran actually happened. One thing I actually take a great amount of pride in is how I build constantly on the worlds I create for my roleplaying games. So everything I do in Trail of Cthulhu tends to always be considered in the same world and builds on the past actions of my players or even previous groups. This meant in particular, the fates of various other agents who also know about the vampire conspiracy was worth while me considering very carefully. A couple of players in the current NBA group got to participate in those one shots and so seeing how the characters they played then – even if only pregens I had available to me – is actually a really fun thing to add to the game.

It also gives me a wide range of automatic NPCs I can pick up and add to my campaign who might be potential allies, enemies or a mixture of both at the same time (one never knows who is compromised by vampiric forces or not). This is especially useful, considering the interesting way that some agents encountered or even met their potential ends at the hands of different vampires during both games. Even when it comes to one shot scenarios and similar, I still never forget things or throw any of my work or notes away. Keeping all of that stuff from the first game I ran is going to be very useful for this campaign.

Of course some of you might be wondering if my Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu games were the same world. Both are modern era and initially I was actually really tempted to do that. For one thing, I thought it would be really interesting if they did have the same overlap in worlds with one group of investigators going for more cosmic threats and agents opposing supernatural ones. After a lot of thought though, I realized why that would be a very poor approach for several reasons. By far the most important one was explaining how vampires were the main threat with Cthulhu and friends around, which was, well, it was kind of hard to justify that. Essentially I would give the main antagonists¬† of my own game major villain decay, by having these infinite cosmic horrors around.

I’m not trying to say that in a game like NBA cosmic horror doesn’t have a place, especially given that one of my particular favourite origins for vampires is that they are basically star spawned horrors (EG children of entities like Cthulhu), but don’t be too quick to merge worlds together. This is especially because I chose an origin and reasoning for why vampires exist – which is heavily implied in both previous one shots – that doesn’t fit very well with the idea of cosmic entities as a general rule being behind everything.

Finally and not least was my naming convention for the different operations, which was inspired by Firaxis games excellent recent reboot of the XCOM franchise. In essence, when you play missions in XCOM it autogenerates the name of the mission you are going through by combining different words together so you get things like “Forgotten Engine”, “Fallen Titan” or “Rotting God” and similar. These don’t sound that far from a heavy metal album, so when designing the various non-player initiated operations in this game I went with a similar naming convention. Basically I ask myself “Would this be out of place on a heavy metal album cover” and go from there. So the first operation in this game is “Awakened Dragon” and a future one is “Burning Excalibur” and so forth.

If it isn’t clear by the end of this, I am super excited to be running this campaign and I can’t wait to share with you all how it goes once it begins! It shall be most interesting to see if the agents choose to keep their humanity, or give in to the darkness by the end of the campaign….