Hangman: Operation Awakened Dragon
The first session of a new campaign is always an important one because it’s here that you can genuinely set the tone, pacing and begin to place the building blocks of the overall narrative into play. Starting this game, I was actually oddly inspired by how well the whole “Agents meet one another in the local airport” routine worked out in my previous one-shot, Nightfall. It’s quite cliche, but I felt fit the spy thriller genre and allowed me to easily justify every player making an introductory “This is who I am” sort of spiel. Additionally there was another really important part to why I did this because it’s a great opportunity to introduce two essential concepts: Cover and Networking.
As NBA simulates a spy thriller and espionage genre, these two skills are essential to getting the players in the mood and are terrific world building mechanics. Cover is basically the fake identities, aliases’ and similar agents use to disguise themselves or deal with their contacts. The initial phase at the airport required the agents to come up with a suitable cover identity, where it came from and how they used it in the past. This meant that right away my players were adding their own touches to the game and world. Next is Network, which allows them to further add particular contacts to get things they need or a place to go (like a safe house). For example agents might create a known CIA safe house, a black market drug dealer, an old friend in the former KGB and other useful things.
In both cases for Cover and Network, how easy or hard these identities or things are to compromise for their enemies depends on the amount of points invested. The more you put in the better they are and also how difficult they can be to compromise by the enemy. It’s important to note neither abilities pool refreshes and so invested points are always tied to the identity/asset created with them. As a consequence this means there are some inherently interesting choices associated with just how much an agents player invests. Do they dump a couple of points into cover to try to help fool a border security guard, knowing they won’t get it back, or do they try to get through another way such as using interpersonal skill spends or even violence?
Of course by far the best part of both of these skills is that they are entirely player driven. If properly encouraged, players will soon make their own contacts, secret places, stashes of hidden weapons and all kinds of other things. This all adds immeasurably to a feeling the world is something their agents have occupied for a while and genuinely built a career in spying inside (before the whole “Vampire” stuff anyway!).
With introductions in order, here were the initial group of agents beginning this game (with a couple of other players arriving at a later session):
In any event, once out of the airport and the agents having introduced themselves to one another they needed some sort of direction (I apologize for the pun) to go in. Here I elaborated that the agent’s handler (who hasn’t been named yet actually) in the CIA wanted them to pay a visit to “Vlad”. Vlad was a useful contact for the Americans and Russians, having prevented a variety of terrorist attacks, dirty bomb deals and similar over the years. Unfortunately, Vlad “disappeared” several years ago and most intelligence agencies assumed he had finally had someone he crossed catch up with him. Thought to be dead, it was quite a surprise when he suddenly reappeared and sent a message saying there was going to be a major “deal” between several terrorist organizations in Moscow – and soon.
Upon reaching the old Soviet era apartment bloc where Vlad was, the Agents soon figured out where he was: The floor with the apartment with the boarded up windows was probably the best bet. When they finally arrived at Vlad’s door, the agents found it to be heavily locked and the man himself was more than a bit agitated, not to mention the sheer paranoia. Here I decided to have a bit of fun at the agent’s expense, presenting a ton of weird and potentially esoteric anti-vampire mechanisms. There were lines of salt across all the doorways and the window, piles of rice about, a little modified aquarium system to run water around, garlic hanging from the ceiling, silver chains over the door and several prominent holy symbols of various religions. Essentially a potpourri of different anti-vampire methods from assorted myths and legends.
I did this for two main reasons: The first is to obviously hint that Vlad knows something weird is going on and obviously that it could be vampire related. However, that reason was not as important as simply confusing the agents and planting several potential red herrings or possibly even essential clues in there for the players. After all possibly the most exciting and best thought out aspect of Night’s Black Agents, is how it gives numerous fantastic options for a Director to create their own vampires.
This means that any two NBA games may have entirely different interpretations of what makes the bloodsuckers tick. This could be as contrasting as Cthulhuesque alien entities defying our laws of space and physics, to something more recognizable as a vampire like descendents of Vlad the impaler or even World of Darkness like Canites. Most importantly, I wanted to give some allusions and hints as to what assumptions about vampires the player’s gave me before the first session began might be true. Once again, communal creation mechanics like this are only worth doing if you’re going to give your players a feeling of part ownership of the world – even if it is in some ways what might not be true.
Outside of the obvious weird vampire paranoia I decided to completely ham up Vlad a bit, describing him as having blood shot eyes, disheveled hair, a strong smell of garlic and not making coherent sense. According to him a terrorist of some repute known as “The Dragon” was going to be selling something to a group of unsavory terrorist groups at an old Chinese restaurant in downtown Moscow. Generally secluded and operated by the Russian Mafia, it was going to be imperative for the agents to interfere and get whatever it was he was selling. At this point the agents were beginning to become skeptical, especially when Vlad started ranting about “Werewolves”, but some appropriate spends on Vlad’s surveillance photos revealed his intelligence seemed to be good: Notable members of different terrorist groups were attending.
Even if Vlad turned out to be insane on the whole “werewolves” part or even if whatever the Dragon was selling was worthless, the agents could strike a major blow here by interfering with the meet. It’s important to note that just saying “There be vampires about!” at this nascent stage of the game is not in itself a convincing motivation for the player’s agents. Metagame wise everyone is well aware that NBA has something to do with vampires, but I wanted to emphasize to the players that their characters haven’t the first clue vampires actually exist. The motivation for taking out these “terrorists” is thus an important hard driver for the plot to actually get underway: Without it there isn’t a logical basis for the agents to get involved with something genuinely crazy.
In any event the agents were definitely over Vlad by this point and decided to go and investigate the place where the meeting was going to occur in 2 days time. I decided on two days for a couple of reasons, with the first being that I wanted the agents to have an opportunity to both research more about “The Dragon” and to have a look at the place in advance. The second one was mostly so that they could do suitable spy like things, such as prepare escape routes, plant surveillance bugs or whatever else took their fancy. At the same time there is a fair amount of impetus in a time frame of a couple of days, so they wouldn’t be hanging around with not a lot to do either. Enforcing the pace of the game should be carefully considered, with the more time you give players the more likely they are to have increasingly ridiculous and multi-layered plots.
Which in fairness, is most of the fun in a game like NBA and should absolutely be encouraged whenever possible.
In any event, I allowed them to do some background research using various skills to learn about the Dragon, who is apparently a former CIA agent. In fact, he was one of the original CIA agents trained after it was formed in 1947 and went rogue sometime in the late 1950s. He was known for his brutal and often psychotic methods, which he carried on into his new life as international assassin, general terrorist and arms dealer. According to CIA records, he has been successfully eliminated up to six different times. Curiously, despite some recent photographs of him from the Sudan in 2011 he does not appear to have aged significantly from the old CIA record photos in the 50s.
Naturally my players were getting suitably paranoid, but decided to go and have a look at the “The Far Eastern Dragon Chinese Restaurant” where the meeting was taking place at. After describing it for a bit, I decided that it would also be good to give them a visual aid in the form of this map:
Aside from just making life easier, it helped them plan their attack and initial investigation of the place. For a reasonable summary of how this process went, they decided to infiltrate the building via the alleyway service door and keep a backup plan of using the nearby office (with its vents) as an emergency escape route. While inside the establishment the agents decided to plant some bugs – courtesy of a network point drop – and also found out some important information: The Russian FSB (Federal Security Bureau) were also investigating the restaurant and would be there the night of the sale. This means the agents would have some potential competition for the item in question, or perhaps some rather unwilling allies.
With this information in mind, the agents decided that the best approach would be to arm themselves to the hilt and prepare for a potentially bloody shoot-out. This meant Natasha spent some of her networking to create a contact called Viktor, who was a known arms dealer outside of Moscow she’d worked with in the past. Of course just because a player creates this initially, doesn’t mean as the director I shouldn’t decide to roll with it in an unusual way. I actually decided that “Viktor, the Coral Snake” doesn’t really deal in money that much and instead much prefers “favors”. For the sniper rifle, AK-47s, flashbangs and other equipment they wanted they would owe Viktor in future.
This is the kind of hanging plot thread that’s really handy to establish early on in the campaign like this. For one thing, it indicates this character has some extra depth than just being a random one off character. Secondly it gives the agents a little bit to think about in the back of their minds in future, as to what this guy might want and when it has to be cashed in. I didn’t have this planned initially, but the good thing with mysterious favors is you don’t need to have a use for them immediately. By getting their guns and equipment, I basically bought myself some future potential intrigue – something that is very appropriate for the genre of game this is.
Eventually it came to the night of the meeting and the agents set themselves up in a little laundromat across the road. Elisa grabbed the sniper rifle and set up shop across the road from the meeting, while Daina disguised herself as one of the waitresses who went to the rear bathrooms of the facility to get in that way and Natasha was disguised as a potential buyer. I decided that it was ample time to start ramping up some tension and when The Dragon arrived, with his two bodyguards, Daina found herself in some trouble. The Dragon called her over and then went to go and bite her on the neck, which naturally made the players extremely jumpy! Thankfully Natasha was also inside the room, deciding that the ideal approach would be to get to the sale first and not the fun bits.
After some thought and thankfully for Daina’s neck, The Dragon decided that was appropriate and began the sale – firstly showing off the “goods”. It turned out inside his little suitcase were six vials of a strange red liquid, which on immediate inspection resembled blood. Some confusion spread around the room from many of the underlings or guards of different groups assembled – but those in charge definitely seemed to think this was extremely valuable. An immediate and pretty intense bidding war broke out, but it soon looked to the FSB agents that they were not going to be able to keep up. This is when they – somewhat foolishly – played their trump card and had Spetsnaz forces close in immediately.
The resulting confusion between The Dragon, his two bodyguards, those inside shooting and the approaching security forces was the opportunity the agents needed: Natasha nimbly grabbed the case and got out of there as fast as she could. Daina kept the kitchen secure and threw a flash bang in the room, so the others didn’t realize what Natasha was currently trying to do. Except for one little problem: The Dragon and his bodyguards were utterly unaffected by the flashbang – so the two goons were rapidly descending upon Daina and Natasha! Meanwhile as this chaos was going on, Elisa was busy clearing the guards from the back alley using her sniper rifle to allow Daina and Natasha to escape out there.
Of course the two bodyguards had something to say about that and one charged down Daina, unfortunately meeting a rather gruesome end at the barrel of her assault shotgun. On the other hand, with no ammunition left the other bodyguard rapidly closed in and started to put the hurt on Daina and then eventually smashed Natasha into one of the kitchen benches. Here I decided to give the first definitive hint as to something strange going on, as the silver knives hanging above seemed to judder and even slightly “smoke” with the bodyguard below them. This inspired Daina to drop the rack of knives right into the bodyguard, impaling him and unfortunately managing to get a bit of Natasha in the process – but at least they could escape.
Meanwhile inside was turning into a red massacre as the Spetsnaz, criminals and FSB were being torn limb from limb by the Dragon – entirely single-handedly at that. While Daina and Natasha managed to get out of the restaurant, it was not going to be long before there was a potential pursuit. With time running out and my desire to keep a sensible way to involve the other players once they could come to the next session in mind, I decided to leave things here.
For now. When we resume next time, I’ll certainly be engaging in the excellent thriller chase rules from NBA and showing just what “The Dragon” can really do more directly…