Hangman: Operation Rising Tide
In the previous play report for Night’s Black Agents, I felt I had to delay a conclusion much more than I would have liked. This ended up making the narrative hard to follow and caused a few problems with how “overdone” the operation felt. Thankfully on my second session and with all of the players present, I was able to fix that to create a fairly action orientated scenario. In many ways, I feel this would have been a much better “opening” to the game than Awakened Dragon, but hindsight is always 20/20. This operation began more “In medias res” to get the action flowing and the players immediately invested in what was going on.
It turns out trying to infiltrate ships used by supernatural monsters to smuggle people around Europe is pretty tricky. Especially when you infiltrate the place as a chef using a cover identity, but not have much actual infiltration when it comes to sneaking off that same ship….
When this operation began I immediately decided on an “In medias res” opening in order to just get everyone right into the swing of things. So I cut through a lot of scenes that would have established where the ship was coming from, what it was carrying and where in Rome it would be docking. Instead I made the decision that the agent’s had already figured these out and then gave them an interesting opportunity: They could have infiltrated the ship in advance. An initial suggestion from Natasha was to actually be the captain and I was pretty interested in rolling with the suggestion. Unfortunately, this was definitely something that used NBAs more limited (non-refreshing) resources in cover and network to accomplish.
This led to a discussion where it was (I feel) important to emphasize that the more risky and difficult a position the more investment it needed. The actual skills, like disguise and infiltration are moment to moment abilities. They hold up under scrutiny for a short period of time, but aren’t designed to be long term solutions for a problem like this. Cover may not come back, but it’s purpose is to create false identities that stand up to scrutiny for long periods of time. Using it to create an identity to “replace” the captain of the ship, seemed by far the most useful option and needed the biggest investment.
Unfortunately this made the player decide not to do so, which was the direct result of the fact regular ability pools like disguise and infiltration come back, while cover does not. In Night’s Black Agents you can replenish the cover and network abilities, but only through hard earned experience during operations. As a result, I’ve noticed some players readily use their network and cover identities, while others will hold onto every point – after all you don’t know when they might need them in future! This is the “Limited Use Item” problem that many RPG games run into, where players stock powerful one use items and just never use them. On reflection, I feel my problem here was not emphasizing how strong using cover or network are, compared to using the “refreshable” skills.
Cover doesn’t just make an identity you use and discard, it makes an entire other persona to allow you to do much more without continually spending. In effect, cover and network are permanent changes to the world or narrative. Creating safehouses, equipment, identities that are designed to last throughout the game (or for long periods) is the point of these abilities. On the other hand, the actual skills themselves like infiltration and disguise are – at least in my view – used for a scene or two before they lose their narrative power. In short, if you want to do something permanent that has a lot of power in the narrative, like taking over captaincy of the enemies ship, that needs an investment in network or cover. If you want something that lasts for a scene and isn’t a huge overall impact? Then regular skills suffice.
On thinking about this after the fact, I probably should have more clearly explained what cover/network actually do. Most importantly, I should have given the players an indication of how strong the choice would be and how it would impact the narrative. For example a player who was the captain of the ship could have dictated who their first mate was, would have had access to valuable records, know who was (or wasn’t) on the ship and could have brought the other agents on board easily. On the other hand, this was also a very high risk position and could be easily compromised by the wrong (or too suspicious) choices.
In essence I didn’t convey the risk and reward prospect through using the stronger skill (cover) to do this. As a result it didn’t seem like a worthwhile investment to the player in question. There was still a reasonable compromise, where one player went onto the ship as a “Chef” (their original background WAS a chef) and the other was basically a deck hand. Positions that let them get around the place and see what was going on, but without really a lot of narrative power. So yeah, I allowed some traditional infiltration and similar checks just for that. However, I do wish the plan to take over captaincy of the ship had gone ahead, as I did have an interesting plan in mind for that.
In any event, we really should get into discussing what actually happened at the game at some point here!
So a celebrity chef and a deckhand walk into a supernatural bar….
With the discussion of “Should we try to be the captain of the ship?” out of the way, I wanted to introduce a new potential player to the game. As they didn’t have a lot of experience with NBA or creating a character, I decided to make them the “head” of an Interpol group also intercepting the ship. Of course Interpol weren’t aware of anything supernatural going on like the agent’s were, but they were interested in the ships cargo of smuggled people. Busting this people smuggling ring was pretty important and their main goal, but Interpol had no idea just how much trouble Af they had got themselves into. After all, they were working with the Italian police and the conspiracy has its fingers in far more than just criminal groups…
Initially the agents spent their time setting up, with Elisa setting up in a sniping position on a high crane, Daina with her laptop near one of the office buildings, Jackson hiding in a shipping container and Natasha with Bauer on the ship posing as crew (Deckhand and Chef respectively). Most of the initial operation was the players hacking into different communications, most notably discovering that Interpol were running a sting alongside their efforts and trying to figure out more about the ship. Bauer and Natasha were able to find that the refugees on board were safe, but were being routinely blood tested on a number of different markers. These blood markers and the physical characteristics of the people determined what “clients” were buying them.
It seemed whoever was running these people smuggling operations was specifically picking people and that some clients had extremely, specific requirements. Unfortunately for the agents, they couldn’t find anything that identified who the clients actually were or where these people were finally going. This meant they still needed remain unnoticed on the ship and potentially find out more from the actual meeting occurring later that night. At this point, both Natasha and Bauer decided to mess with the drinks being sent to the captain and first mate. Exchanging a low alcohol one with, essentially, pure vodka. This would rapidly get them drunk and hopefully allow the agents time with the captains files or computer.
This plan did work very well and it was soon the case that the captain, with his first mate, were drunker than skunks before long. Here another one of the ships crew in the room was revealed to be a hidden agent himself, one of Interpols in fact. Interpol communications indicated that he was suspicious of Natasha and Bauer, but noted that the captain was getting hammered. He was worried this would affect their deal with the contact coming to visit, who was known as “The Dragon”. Naturally this information set all of the agents on edge, having encountered this man before and barely escaped with their lives.
Even worse? Apparently someone above even The Dragon had “punished” him for his failure in Moscow. One of the Dragon’s eyes had apparently been torn right out from its socket and he now had to wear a bandage around his face to hide the scars. As a result, most of the others who deal with him are terrified because The Dragon is apparently extremely homicidal, especially to anyone who might be associated with those who humiliated him. Essentially the agents are making friends and influencing people really well right from the get go! Particularly those of the supernatural sort!
With the meeting coming up soon, the agents decided to reveal who they were and work with Interpol. For one thing, it made sense to pool resources and on the other hand, Interpol apparently had the Italian police waiting to “help” with the raid. Given how powerful the Dragon proved to be in the past, all the assistance they could muster was of utmost importance.
With Daina’s help, Natasha managed to hack into the captains files and discover that they were moving the people on board to something called “People Solutions International”. At this point, with most of the data downloaded the Captain came out of the bathroom and needed to be “fixed up” as the Dragon with several others – including an important member of the Italian Mafia – arrived for their meeting*. With time running out, the agents, their contact with Interpol and the captain went down to meet him. Meanwhile a couple of jobbers from the mafia were searching the docks, nearly discovering where Jackson was hiding. Thankfully some furbies distracted one of them long enough for him to slip behind the two, then knock them both out and stuff them under the furbies.
Honestly, what aren’t furbies useful for?
Of course it wouldn’t be a roleplaying game if things didn’t go spectacularly wrong for the players characters at some point. This operation started to go wrong when Daina and Elisa noticed the Italian police pulling away from the docks. In other words their “backup” just disappeared and then it was compounded moments later, when the interpol agent (posing as the first mate, who was passed out in the bathroom) and the captain met the Dragon. Within moments, the Dragon pulled a large gun out and executed the interpol agent instantly.
The Dragon was apparently very unhappy with proceedings and angrily demanded the captain search all crew on board. There were “rats” on the ship and he wanted to find them, which meant that Bauer and Natasha were now in trouble. Naturally after the previous beatdown the agents received from the Dragon in Moscow and the large number of armed men beginning to enter the docks, it was time to leave. Unfortunately here is where that thing I mentioned at the start comes back: It turns out that if you want to sneakily escape from somewhere, you might not want to pick the guy who has no infiltration skill. While Natasha made a graceful and silent dive into the water to swim to their pre-prepared escape helicopter (hidden on a ship in a nearby dock), Bauer, erm, flopped into the water. Loudly.
The escape from Rome’s docks
With Bauer failing to get into the water without attracting attention, this meant that the Dragon and others were searching for whatever made the noise. While the other agents and Interpol agent Yvonne (new players character for this session) made a quieter escape, this triggered a major battle when Bauer was spotted in the water. Without asking further questions, bullets began flying and unfortunately Natalie also got spotted – with them both taking glancing blows from armed guards on the ship. Meanwhile the Dragon, noticing the helicopter and the other agents fleeing towards it, immediately jumped off the ship onto the docks and began running over there in pursuit. Even with the agents head start on him, the Dragon rapidly started to gain ground and this was a huge problem – as Bauer and Natalie were still flailing about in the water.
Tension began to amp up as the Dragon approached and the agents realized they were in severe trouble. Elisa decided to make a preparedness check to see if the helicopter had a machine gun on it, with a success indicating that yeah it did. I decided it had a Russian made RPK on hand, which would allow them to lay down some covering fire. On the other hand, this turned out to backfire more than it helped – as the supernaturally powered Dragon pretty much ignored it and Natasha failed to dodge the bullets, getting shot off the docks back into the water.
Thankfully for everyone involved, Yvonne had decided to hijack her own boat with the other surviving Interpol agent. This meant that Bauer and Natalie could swim out further towards it and escape that way, even as the Dragon was dislodged from the helicopter and then easily dodged a sniper bullet aimed his way (he’s *very* quick). Here the agents gained a very valuable bit of intelligence about their enemy: He didn’t seem to be able to just jump or cross the water to come after them. A curious but perhaps very important, weakness.
With an escape and rendezvous set, it was now time to figure out the next step: How to find out where the people being smuggled by whoever the Dragon was working for were sent? The most relevant clue that the agents had was the name of a labor placement company, People Solutions International. It was time to do some further infiltrating!
At this point, I planned for this to be a reasonably quick conclusion scene. Mostly I wanted to set up and give some exposition to the next potential operation that the agents might go on. Once I found out what their plan was, I began to rewrite the scene and add some more meat straight away, because they were going to go in personally. Several of them wanted to get hired by the company and go through their “relocation” process. This was an interesting opportunity and I directly started ad-libbing the scene on the fly, mostly to allow the players to get into their labs.
Like on the ship, PSI requires mandatory bloodtests of their potential employees for various “legal” reasons. In reality the agents were aware these tests were done so that PSI’s mysterious clients could select those humans with suitable blood they wanted. Here a dilemma occurred, because the agents weren’t sure if giving blood was a good idea and they only had enough of a suitable fake substitute for one test. So Bauer, Natalie and Carter (surviving Interpol agent) with Yvonne posing as a “doctor” went in. Meanwhile Daina (who infiltrated the building as a cleaner) and Elisa waiting outside, were going to help those inside leave when the job was done.
In the end, Bauer gave up his blood to the clinic and so is on “the record”. Meanwhile, Natalie and Carver also gave blood, but what Yvonne decided to do with the samples, whose blood she switched or if she switched their blood at all is…. unknown. While working on the samples, they noticed that the doctor had accessed his files and was busily sending an email. Bauer decided this would be the perfect time, now they were alone, to go up to the guy and give him a brutal karate chop to knock him out. Gathering what files they could, they actually made an incredibly fortuitous breakthrough as the doctor was directly emailing one of the clients PSI serves.
They had an actual name and they knew they could find them.
Louis Delacroix was the name on the email and it corresponded to a mysterious recluse who lived in Paris, France. This important breakthrough meant they finally had a name of one of the clients receiving the “people” from these smuggling rings. After a quick escape, as they had done a lot of preparation in getting keycards and getting through the back door unnoticed, they could slip away into the night.
It was time to begin the next operation…
*As an important note, unlike in the first Operation, as the Dragon approached he was entirely visible on the security cameras. This contradiction immediately confused the players considerably. Exactly as planned.