A long time ago, when I was starting to get into Night’s Black Agents I had an important question on my mind: Did I mix my peanut butter with my delicious chocolate? Notably, do I start bleeding together the worlds of my Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents games? Trail of Cthulhu is a very deliberate, slow and highly investigative orientated game. Subsequently, GUMSHOE as presented in Trail is more about the discovery of terrible mysteries about the nature of man and the insane world locked behind the curtain of our minds. Night’s Black Agents takes a different approach, with the characters being more like the protagonists of a spy thriller. High tech gadgets, high speed chases and intense combat scenes against villains – human or vampiric – are the order of the day. Investigative skills tend to get toned down, or at least aren’t the inherent focus of the game.
But what if we genuinely combined these two excellent GUMSHOE systems together? My initial thought was making the two worlds I had created coterminous would be entirely logical, until I started doing it. What I quickly found was that there were aspects of my NBA campaigns that, quite frankly, didn’t fit with the slow methodical cosmic horror of Trail of Cthulhu. Most notably is the power disparity between the inherent antagonists of the two games: Vampires are kind of small time when placed against the mythos gods, which is emphasized even more when you start saying “Vampires and the Gods of the mythos are inherently linked”. In effect, making everything the result of mythos magic seemed to diminish vampires as the core antagonists of NBA.
That felt to me like I was losing a lot of what made Night’s Black Agents, by itself, a compelling game and experience. So I decided to separate my universes back into a set “Night’s Black Agents techno spy vampire thriller world” and “Trail of Cthulhu slow horrifying cosmic horror world”. After much thought, I considered if I had perhaps given up too easily and perhaps there was a lot of merit to the idea? One thing that stood out to me at the time, was how much my players were disappointed that I didn’t actually go ahead and do this. Most of my NBA and Trail of Cthulhu players were excited by the idea of having their Cthulhu and Vampire puddings mixed together. Here are some of my ideas that I have come up with on this issue, for your digestion as well.
Devourer of Worlds, Drinker’s of Blood
The real core problem when you combine NBA and Trail of Cthulhu is the core antagonists the players face grows a bit out of proportion. Vampires become easy to overshadow when put up against classic antagonists of the mythos like Mi-Go or Deep ones – no pun intended here. It’s important to realize that you have to keep the individual flavor of both games when you combine them, otherwise you might as well just add some vampires to Trail of Cthulhu as a once off and be done with things. Likewise, the hopeless despair of Trail of Cthuhu’s cosmic horror and the associated moment of anangnorisis, which changes that characters perception of the world permanently, don’t work well with antagonists who can be defeated. This isn’t to say that NBA assumes vampires are overly beatable of course, but it is a reasonable core expectation in NBA from players I have found.
On the other hand, its ironically much easier within NBAs framework to make vampires that are outright nigh invincible and almost impossible for PCs to kill. Even some of the more notable mythos monsters in Trail of Cthulhu pale to simply constructed Renfields or basic vampires of NBA in power. Part of this again is because the two games assume different power levels for investigators and agents, with agents being much more capable in combat than your typical investigator. It does however mean if you combine these systems and want to say use Mi-Go, they need some serious work to become more intimidating to your average NBA agent. Of course, the power discrepancies between mythos entities from Trail of Cthulhu and a vampire built using NBAs highly flexible rules is not the big problem.
The big problem is always going to be “Who is the lead antagonist of this world?”. Vampires don’t necessarily scream out that they are what you should be afraid of, especially when there are literal madness inducing horrors from beyond time and space out there. Likewise I found it hard to combine my religious origins for vampirism, something I rather like from Vampire the Masquerade, into a cosmic horror theme. It’s a bit strange to be combining a Christian mythology framework for vampires where Cthulhu literally exists, at least not without asking very difficult questions like “Why doesn’t God do anything about these terrible entities if they exist and threaten mankind?” Similarly, to make vampires compelling in NBA they usually require idiosyncratic weaknesses and banes in order to defeat them. If a cross can affect a vampire, does it have any effect on other mythos entities? If it doesn’t, why doesn’t it?
This might seem like an odd thing to be rather worried about, but when building a world like this and combining themes it’s important to consider how players might interpret these statements. Writing might seem like just making whatever you want, chucking a loose justification at the screen and calling it a day, but for it to be meaningful world-building that narrative has to be consistent. You can’t just figure players will find a non-answer to a fundamental way the world works to be satisfying or meaningful. Likewise giving vampires extra weaknesses and banes, a core part of building them from NBA, while making mythos monsters utterly immune to human constructs (again, like the crosses) is deeply confusing. It contributes heavily to the problem where your star antagonists, we are trying to take vampires into Cthulhu after all, just don’t feel like the stars anymore.
Again, no pun intended.
There are actually two entirely different solutions to this antagonist problem you can employ. By far one of the easiest approaches is to just drop the idea of using vampires at all from NBA, but instead use the excellent creation rules and guides in there to power up Trail antagonists instead. Most of the powers that vampires can be given in NBA are very easy to convert or employ for a variety of mythos horrors. Nothing says that Mi-Go can’t be scuttling about the ceiling, or that a Dimensional Shambler can’t make great use of the psychic compulsion and similar powers vampires have available to them. It’s actually quite simple to use these rules to power up the mythos entities of Trail of Cthulhu, making them more compatible with the thriller style combat of NBA you’re importing.
Of course, I felt at the time this wasn’t an idea solution because it missed what I felt made this idea so compelling anyway: Putting a vampiric conspiracy into the horror of the mythos. As a result, my preference was somewhat different and I decided that vampires were the main antagonists of this world. Typical mythos alien horrors, like Byakhee, Shoggoths and similar were obscenely rare (or perhaps only mad ruors at best). Vampires were built with a distinct mythos bent in mind, with weaknesses and abilities reflecting different patron mythos entities. For example, those vampires closest to Cybele, the Black Goat of a Thousand Young, were more likely to be feral, have obscenely thick bark like hides and have the ability to merge with the ground/trees. Similarly, a vampire belonging to Yog-Sothoth was more likely to be abstract in nature, have bizarre weaknesses and might not be able to enter a room consisting only of hard angles (or no angles).
This way of thinking kept vampires special and the front and center villains of the world, while not taking away from the mythos influenced feel I was going for. Although this does depart from the traditional “Build a vampire” rules in NBA, the same concepts apply when building your vampires based on the god (or gods) you want to showcase. Similarly, it doesn’t mean you can’t mix in the odd traditional mythos monster into the mix as well, such as the Hound of Tindalos or a similarly “outside” creature. In any event, once I started to think like this and build vampires like they were the main, direct servants of different mythos gods, it began to click quite well how this should work. Naturally I decided that all vampires shared some common elements, such as a desire to feast upon human blood or psychic energies (or both!). Likewise, even mythos vampires still fear the sun with some notable exceptions, such as the fire vampires of Cthugha.
Overall I think my solution kept the unique feel and aspects of vampires from NBA, while still keeping the cosmic horror of the Cthulhu mythos from Trail of Cthulhu intact. This core decision as to who wears the main antagonist hat informed most of my subsequent decisions. Combining two different kinds of game, even if they use the same basic system, is still not an easy task. The big challenge now was how do you make characters that face these threats and what do they look like? The skill heavy, but no so focused on combat investigators of Trail of Cthulhu? Are they largely abandoning investigative skills to get into action scenes faster, like Night’s Black Agents? Or is there a compelling middle ground? When we next return to this topic (soon I hope!) that’s something I think is well worth discussing, especially after I have mulled over the idea a bit more myself!