In this series, Kenneth Hite looks at the creatures, species, and monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos from every non-Euclidean angle. Alternate versions and new explanations provide the same jolt of mythic bisociation that the gods and titans receive in the TRAIL OF CTHULHU corebook. Hite traces these foul things through their legendary history, and provides further clues for any Investigator to follow. Horrific scenario seeds burst and bloom, story spines protrude and deform, in a blasphemous garden any Keeper can harvest.
HIDEOUS CREATURES: HOUNDS OF TINDALOS are lean and athirst! Frank Belknap Long’s greatest creations emerge from the angles of time, slavering and frumious. Are they hell-hounds, haunts, or cold equations? Track the Tindlosi spoor through prehistory and posthumanity, from the Wild Hunt to Cerberus and the howl of Garm.
Hounds of Tindalos is the third installment of the Ken Writes About Stuff subscription, or it’s available as a stand-alone from the store.
|Stock #: PELGT36D
||Author: Kenneth Hite
|Cover: Kyle Strahm
||Artwork: Stefano Azzalin
|Pages: 10pg PDF
As I begin planning future Ken Writes About Stuff pieces, a number of solid GUMSHOE campaign frames occur to me. Longer than the frames in the corebooks, but not super complex, such settings make good KWAS PDFs. They might not support a whole book (although then again they might, if sales of the basic PDF drive me to write sequels or expansions) but they are worth exploring for a few thousand words. Frames like 1970s UFO investigation, or menagerie hunters in a fantastic Byzantine Empire, or cyberpunk resistance in a Soviet-occupied Japan, or superpowered spies a la S.H.I.E.L.D. or Suicide Squad are easy to adapt. Roles for both Investigative and General abilities are clear; the stories feel like other GUMSHOE games already.
Sometimes, however, the potential campaign frame needs something else.
As one might expect of a longtime Lovecraftian and sometime consulting occultist, I am a great admirer of William Hope Hodgson’s horror fiction. I first discovered Hodgson in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig,’ an inescapably weird blend of sea story and horror sequence. But as a game designer, I am drawn inexorably to Hodgson’s nine tales (written between 1910 and 1918) of Carnacki, the “Ghost Finder.” (One of those tales, “The Hog,” shares enough imagery in common with Hodgson’s 1908 novel The House on the Borderland to make that magnificent haunted-house thriller also part of the Carnacki-verse.) Carnacki acts as a sort of proto-steampunk private occult detective, looking into reputed hauntings and, if he finds them genuine, using his “electric pentacle” to thwart the evil spirits responsible.
If you haven’t read any Carnacki stories, the rest of this column may constitute spoilers. So go read them.
Pretty much everyone’s favorite parts of Carnacki are the strange supernatural elements (the Sigsand Manuscript, the Aeiirii and Saiitii Entities, the Saamaa Ritual), the weird technology (not just electric pentacles but dream-readers, “repellent vibration apparatus,” and a whole hinted world of ghost-breaking scholarship), and the wild proto-Derlethian cosmology of Outer Beings formed from the ether held in check by sunlight and the occasional Protective Presence. You can add those to your Trail of Cthulhu or Esoterrorists game and move on happily.
But to model the actual Carnacki stories requires us to drill down and find out how those stories work in GUMSHOE. The Investigative abilities are very obvious and fairly standard — Carnacki spends Architecture in almost every tale, for example, to make sure there isn’t a mundane explanation such as creaking floorboards or drafts. So it’s the General ability opportunities that we’re looking for.What are their big conflicts? Where, in GUMSHOE terms, is the threat of failure truly present and interesting?
Real fast, then: Here are the threat points in each of the nine stories, presented in a deliberately bald and stripped-down fashion. (They’re much better than these summaries make them sound.) The General Abilities Carnacki seems to use are in parentheses afterward.
- “The Gateway of the Monster”: Investigating a haunted room, Carnacki nearly upsets his own pentacle three times. The next night, he foolishly brings a magic ring he found inside his pentacle but resists its power, and manages to jump the pentacle and escape in time. (Stability, Athletics)
- “The House Among the Laurels”: Carnacki’s investigation proves that the so-called haunting is caused by a criminal gang. When he returns with the police, the party makes too much noise and the gang escapes, but Carnacki has “laid the ghost.” (Stealth)
- “The Whistling Room”: After discovering the horror in the room, Carnacki is tricked into entering it by the mimicked voice of his client. An unknown voice chants an incantation allowing him to jump out the window and free himself. (Stability? Athletics?)
- “The Horse of the Invisible”: Carnacki and his client wound a jilted suitor in a fight, exposing his attempt to fake a haunting. A genuine ghost then kills the suitor and the hauntings stop (for now). (Firearms and Scuffling, used at penalties for darkness)
- “The Searcher of the End House”: Carnacki successfully traps the man who has been trying to scare the tenants from the house, which is coincidentally haunted by two presences. Carnacki doesn’t even try to exorcise the presences. (Mechanics)
- “The Thing Invisible”: Carnacki’s investigation discovers a deadly booby-trap with no supernatural component.
- “The Hog”: A horrible monster slowly overwhelms Carnacki’s defenses. At the last minute, a defending spirit rescues Carnacki and his client. (Mechanics? Stability)
- “The Haunted Jarvee“: Carnacki’s attempts to cleanse a haunted ship of evil vibrations fail, as a demonic storm overturns his devices. (Mechanics)
- “The Find”: Pure deduction unravels the mystery of a no-longer-unique (and non-supernatural) book. Excellent seed for a Book-Hounds of London scenario, though.
In GUMSHOE terms, “The Thing Invisible” and “The Find” use Investigative abilities exclusively. “End House,” “Laurels,” and even “Horse of the Invisible” are conventional “Scooby-Doo” type stories, with the occasional haunting as unnerving scenery: again, mostly Investigative abilities, with a few Mechanics, Stealth, or Weapons ability tests at the end against human foes. All very standard stuff, Hodgson’s engaging prose notwithstanding.
What we really need is a system to model the confrontations with the “ab-Human” entities in “Gateway,” “Whistling Room,” “The Hog,” and “Jarvee.” These confrontations have two big systemic problems:
- the ab-Human foes cannot be weakened (although Carnacki tries in “Jarvee” with his “repellent vibration emitter”) — this means only the PCs’ defensive rolls count. This is boring, the mechanical equivalent of “roll ten CON saves against dying in the desert.” Similarly …
- a single failure by Carnacki means doom. This essentially one-and-done format makes the final scene anticlimactic, or a death trap. Worse, a boring death trap. (“Roll again. You survived? Roll again. You survived? Roll again.”)
Mechanically, this leads to passive, un-suspenseful, irritating play. Hodgson covers up the essential passivity of Carnacki by vigorous narration (including the cocksure “summing up” at the end), and covers the essential lack of suspense (we know Carnacki survived, because he’s telling the story after surviving it) during the confrontation with evocative, terrifying prose. But a game system can’t depend on such things. Even Hodgson had to pull a GM fiat out of his hat and have NPC “Protective Forces” show up in two of the four tales. So how do we build Carnacki-style confrontations with the supernatural (“sittings”) into GUMSHOE?
I can think of two options using existing GUMSHOE mechanics:
- Change the cosmology such that a “sitting” becomes a fight; perhaps each “round” is an hour of sitting. (Hours the contest goes on = hours of nightfall, or from midnight to dawn.) Carnacki rolls and spends from his Pentacle ability pool, weakening the Ab-human’s Aberrance. (The better the pentacle, the higher the bonus, just like weapons.) The Ab-human rolls and spends from its Aberrance ability pool, weakening Carnacki’s Stability. (Does the creature gain Hit Threshold from being super-Aberrant, or do bonus Stability damage, or both? Should Stability damage vary by manifestation?) When Aberrance reaches 0, the thing is exorcised or prevented from harmful manifestation until the next sundown. When Stability reaches 0 (or -6), Carnacki does something panicky or twitchy to open the pentacle, and he gets munched.
- Run the sitting as a Thriller Chase, as in Night’s Black Agents. Again, perhaps each “round” is an hour of sitting. Carnacki rolls and spends from his Stability pool; the Ab-human rolls and spends from its Aberrance pool. The side with the higher result moves the Psychic Balance toward 0 (exorcism/prevention) or toward 10 (pentacle overwhelmed; Carnacki munched). Pentacles add bonuses to Stability rolls (or act as “armor” against Aberrance rolls; same thing mechanically).
Ab-humans might have automatic “spends” on every roll, being inhuman; or, possibly, just add an automatic bonus, like an Alertness Modifier (Vileness modifier?), such that the Ab-human has no pool to drain. This provides mechanical distinction (an Ab-human now doesn’t “feel” like a normal GUMSHOE monster) but the invariance might flatten the contests back out.
Maybe the Pentacle always depends on a Mechanics test to set up, preventing the “oh, well, it’s just a poltergeist and my pentacle automatically gives me +3″ ennui. Further, maybe the difficulty of the Mechanics test varies depending on how much of the underlying manifestation Carnacki understands. This works once (the first time the GM reveals the modifier) but not consistently, but adding one more mystery factor might still be worth it.
Like combats and Thriller Chases, both will still depend on GM and player narration to add color to the bald dice contest, but at least we’ve got a contest in both directions. I suspect a little thought will give us ways to use other abilities to influence the contest, as with Tactical Fact-Finding Bonuses. If the Ab-human powers vary, and the NPCs can be counted on to respond in dangerous and panicky fashion, that also varies the showdowns.
That takes care of the first big problem; for the second, we could possibly add a Fleeing/Athletics parachute (as in “Gateway” and possibly “Whistling Room”) to allow Carnacki to get away from the haunting site alive, though scarred somehow. Or, if a successful exorcism grants Carnacki XP (to apply to better pentacles, etc.) then a sudden life-saving intervention (as in “Whistling Room” and “The Hog”) costs XP.
Even then, potential Carnacki Files GMs should probably follow Hodgson’s lead and restrict pure “sittings” to a minority of adventures. Lots of other mundane plots, or manifestations that don’t rise to the level of catastrophic, or excellent steampunk adventures, can be fit into the Carnacki frame. And when I figure out exactly which system to use (or if my so-far inchoate notion of rolling all the Ab-human’s dice at the beginning and applying them throughout the haunt pans out) then I’ll have a frame to fit them into.
Out you go!
We have learned that last year’s operation in Morristown, New Jersey failed to end the vampire threat. Kenneth Hite and John Adamus urgently request assistance at DEXCON 16 from 10:00AM – 6:00PM, Saturday, July 6, 2013 to counter yet another assault by the undead…
…or to participate in it.
The Operation: The 2013 World Night’s Black Agents Championship will be run in two rounds by Night’s Black Agents designer Kenneth Hite, assisted by John Adamus. Players can come for either, or both sessions:
- The first round is a LIVE ACTION session in which players portray agents, vampires, and the holders of the clues to a terrifying conspiracy.
- Surviving agents follow those clues to an explosive final tabletop round.
Prizes: Up to five winners (determined by survival and excellence) will receive FREE 2014 combo memberships to METATOPIA 2013, DREAMATION 2014 and DEXCON 17.
Get more details, and order Night’s Black Agents from the Pelgrane Shop.
Night’s Black Agents brings the GUMSHOE engine to the spy thriller genre, combining the propulsive paranoia of movies like Ronin and The Bourne Identity with supernatural horror straight out of Bram Stoker. Investigation is crucial, but it never slows down the action, which explodes with expanded options for bone-crunching combat, high-tech tradecraft, and adrenaline-fueled chases.
I gotta say, it’s a good thing I already wrote GUMSHOE rules for expeditions. Because now I’m not surprised when everything takes longer and seems harder than it did when we planned this thing. Mythos Expeditions has, like its namesake, run into its share of excitement along the way. Promising paths had to be neglected, heroic comrades fell along the trail, and I can’t get the sound of those drums out of my head! The drums! The drums! Oh, hold on, I’ve got Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” on repeat on iTunes. My bad. I blame FX’ The Americans, which is giving me a Cold War nostalgia that is very dangerous in a man with an espionage RPG line. Very dangerous. Hmm. Oh, right. Where were we? Or, rather, when were we?
That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as the adventures for Mythos Expeditions have come in. One or two are still out gathering firewood or looking for fresh water, but I’m fairly confident that we’ve got our table of contents right here, right after “GUMSHOE Rules for Expeditions”:
“The Gobi Sleepers,” by Steven S. Long
Maverick paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews is making one last trip to the wilds of Mongolia, to uncover primordial fossils revealing the true heritage of mankind. At the edge of the world, on the brink of an invasion, the expedition must sift the dust of the Gobi and survive the truth. Andrews’ last expedition was in 1930, but time tends to get weird out in Inner Mongolia.
“Ravenous Silences,” by Anthony Warren
Plague and rebellion grip Liberia in West Africa, but the brave scholars of the Miskatonic Medical Relief Expedition are undaunted. And, so far, undevoured! The Kru Rebellion ran from 1931 to 1936, and this adventure can run likewise.
“Lost on a Sea of Dreams,” by Adam Gauntlett
Oceanographer William Beebe has invented an amazing device, the bathysphere, that promises to revolutionize deep exploration forever. A team of Miskatonic scholars is bringing him an improved model … sailing on a course leading through the Bermuda Triangle. Beebe’s Bermuda expeditions ran from 1930 to 1934, opening up a vast horizon of chronological possibilities.
“An Incident at the Border,” by Kenneth Hite
Set in a Paraguay battling for its life against Bolivian invasion, this expedition takes Miskatonic geologists — and a helpful oil company engineer — deep into the desolate heart of the Gran Chaco. Artillery strikes, vampire bats, dust storms: Paraguay’s got it all during the Chaco War (1932-1935).
“The Jaguars of El-Thar,” by Tristan J. Tarwater
An unstable anthropologist in the wilds of Mayan Yucatan. The prestige (and expedition budget) of Miskatonic’s Mayan studies program is on the line, in a remote province thrown into turmoil by Depression, rebellion, and the return of unwelcome outsiders. Riffs off the Mayan “Caste War” ending in April 1933, as well as another event that year that might spoil the adventure if I revealed it here.
“Tongued With Fire,” by Bill White
The historical roots of the Prester John legend — perhaps of the beginnings of Christianity in India — draw Miskatonic scholars to the hills above the Punjab to uncover the true significance of an ancient artifact that may have been touched by John the Baptist! Flashing back to Kipling’s Raj and forward to Gandhi’s revolution, this expedition likely launches between 1936 and 1939.
“Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” by Emma Marlow
A mysterious stone whistle carved by an unknown tribe in the interior of a New Guinea island! Cannibals! Limestone caverns no human eye has ever seen! Errol Freaking Flynn! And I haven’t even teased the best thing about this scenario yet. If you have a single pulp-gamer bone in your body, you will run this adventure set in May, 1937. Trust me.
“A Load of Blarney,” by Lauren Roy
A curious shape in a cargo of iron leads Miskatonic’s finest on a tangled trail through Irish history, past rath and grange and standing stone, through the Moon-Bog of the Barrys, and into a mythic terror. It begins with the historical sinking of the steamship Annagher in December 1937, and ends … well, that would be telling, would it not?
“Cerulean Halo,” by Matthew Sanderson
President Roosevelt wants to return to Clipperton Island, an isolated speck in the Pacific hundreds of miles south of Mexico, an island legendary for its deep-sea fishing and haunted by its murderous past. Miskatonic University wants FDR to take along a Miskatonic naturalist who knows the island. There isn’t one, so the Investigators will have to do instead. The President did indeed visit Clipperton in July 1938, so you must have found nothing amiss before then, right?
You’ll note I’ve put those adventures in rough chronological order. Why is that? I will explain, in the manner common to such things, by means of a rambling exposition. Mythos Expeditions is a collection of scenarios, not a campaign. The basic expedition structure is fairly inescapable: Investigators travel through danger, meet horror, escape/overcome it or die/go mad/both. When the only core clue you really need is marked with a big red “X” on the map, the advantage, the killer app (heh), the key to a good expedition scenario is the scenery: the setting, the horror, the sense of, yes, travel to a strange far place. Running all these adventures in a row strains those advantages. Fodor’s Disease sets in: “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgian Congo.”
Ideally, you’ll parcel them out over years of play, tossing an expedition into the middle of an ongoing series of urban Arkham adventures, rural Massachusetts bonfires, and campus intrigues. Putting these scenarios in chronological order, then, helps you plant seeds ahead of time. It lets you know when “sweeps week” might be coming for your campaign, and gives you big events to build up to. Sure, you can change things up — only a churl would cavil if you extended the Yucatan Caste War, or moved FDR’s second Clipperton fishing trip up to his first term. You’re not tied to the real history (which is oddly bereft of Yithians and blasphemous frog-people, anyhow) — but you can always play in it, if you want. I think that’s more fun. Maybe that’s just me.
And if you further differ with me, and want to run them all in a row, who am I to say you can’t? I say no such thing. However you want to play, spaced out or time-shifted, this book will also contain guidelines for using these adventures as the spine of an Armitage Inquiry campaign. Rules for bringing knowledge back to the Orne Library, so that everyone in the Inquiry can build up those dedicated pool points. If I have time, maybe a sub-system for playing through an academic career (student or faculty) at Miskatonic University, where “publish or perish” takes on a whole new meaning. Or maybe that will have to go in a later issue of Ken Writes About Stuff. It’s hard to say. I just have to keep striding forward, toward that big red “X” on the map. And somehow stop these maddening drums.
GUMSHOE Zoom: Martial Arts is intended to model the sorts of stories (usually movies) in which martial arts combat takes center stage in at least one scene. In addition to straight martial-arts films like Enter the Dragon or Ong-Bak, you can see such martial arts foregrounding in hybrid thrillers such as Raid: Redemption, The Matrix, or Haywire, or even as a set piece in a “straight” spy thriller like The Bourne Supremacy.
It’s useable in any GUMSHOE setting, and includes styles for Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents and Esoterrorists.
GUMSHOE Zoom: Martial Arts is the second installment of the Ken Writes About Stuff subscription, or it’s available as a stand-alone from the store.
What is a GUMSHOE Zoom?
Not everything can support a game of its own, or even a big sourcebook. For those things, we present the GUMSHOE Zoom, a sort of supplement focused on a key game mechanic and its possible applications. In general, Zooms are interesting potential hacks, or intriguing adaptations of the main rules. Some apply to one specific topic or sub-sub-genre. Others cross all manner of GUMSHOE turf; you can slot them in and adapt them to tales of Cthulhuoid investigation, mean superpowered streets, or alien colonies alike.
Zooms are experimental. That does mean that they haven’t been playtested, necessarily. (If something in here is really really broken – and it’s not, as this ain’t our first rodeo – we’ll fix it in post.) But that also means we encourage you to experiment with them. Changing the cost, or prerequisites, or point effect, or other mechanical parameters of a given Zoom changes how often it shows up and how much drama it drives. The dials are in your hands.
Zooms will change the focus of your play if you use them. Putting a mechanic on the table puts it into your game. Adding a Zoom means more actions, possibly even more scenes, using those rules. Since the Zoom mechanics are intended to encourage specific actions or flavors, to force a card in your storytelling hand, they aren’t “balanced” against “normal” actions or rules. In general, if you don’t want to see more of it, don’t Zoom in on it.
Zooms are optional rules. You can and should ignore them if you don’t want them, or change them at will. After all, if a given Zoom turns out to be crucial to an upcoming GUMSHOE game, we’ll change it to fit that specific genre or form of storytelling.
|Stock #: PELGT32D
||Author: Kenneth Hite
|Artist: Melissa Gay
||Pages: 10pg PDF
Ken Hite has joined Pelgrane as a full-time writer, and we’ve come up with a clever way of using his considerable writing talents. Now, you can subscribe to Ken Writes About Stuff, featuring new and original Hite goodness every month for twelve months. A costs $24.95 and as well as giving you a generous 30% discount on the individual article price of $2.95, we’ll be offering an exclusive extra later in the year to all subscribers.
Any time you order, you’ll get all the issues of the current KWAS to date.
Ken describes it as so:
“A burst of Hite goodness that you can imbibe or not as you see fit, secure in the knowledge that there’s another one coming down the pike in a month at a reasonable price. I’ll be putting about 4,000 words worth of fun together every month — maybe an optional rules system, maybe a longish DramaSystem Series Pitch, maybe a “ripped from the headlines” mini-scenario, maybe a campaign frame or a mini-setting, maybe an extended riff on some worthy intelligence organization or serial killer or astrophysical anomaly. Leave requests in the comments, and I shall take them most indubitably under advisement.”
Ken Writes About Stuff kicks off with Hideous Creatures: Deep Ones, an in-depth look at everyone’s favourite underwater creatures, which, if you must, is available as a stand-alone.
- April: Hideous Creatures: Deep Ones, an in-depth look at everyone’s favourite underwater creatures,
- May: Ken’s take on martial arts in GUMSHOE Zoom: Martial Arts.
- June: Hideous Creatures: Hounds of Tindalos are lean and athirst! Frank Belknap Long’s greatest creations emerge from the angles of time, slavering and frumious. Are they hell-hounds, haunts, or cold equations? Track the Tindlosi spoor through prehistory and posthumanity, from the Wild Hunt to Cerberus and the howl of Garm.
- July: Die Glocke: According to the legend, in 1944 the SS built a mysterious device deep in a Silesian mine shaft. Its bell-like shape gave it the nickname “die Glocke,” or “the Bell,” but the purpose of “Project Lantern-Bearer” remains a mystery to this day. Was it a time machine? A zero-point energy generator? A gateway to another world? This PDF cuts through the legend to the truth — and then piles on a bunch more legend. Plus, a look at “die Glocke” as a NIGHT’S BLACK AGENTS node, a TRAIL OF CTHULHU seed, or a ESOTERRORIST black site
- August: Hideous Creatures : Mi -Go “As to what the things were — explanations naturally varied.” The fungi from Yuggoth, the half-crustacean haunters of the hillside, the malevolent alien miners … are also opponents of the Yellow Sign and tireless questers for science. And that’s just one story! Are they servants of Nyarlathotep or fellow sentients trapped in a hellish cosmos? Listen for their whispers in tales of kobolds and kallikanzarai, look for their traces in Himalayan snows and heartland crop circles.
Let us know in the comments what other installments you’d like to see
|Stock #: PELH01D
||Author: Kenneth Hite
||Pages: 10pg PDF per edition
Player handouts for Bookhounds of London
These rumours are player knowledge: the sorts of things eager Book-Hounds are likely to hear as they wander the streets, drink a pint in the pubs, and gossip with their cronies and rivals. Their degree of truth, and their potential for danger and profit, remain in the Keeper’s hands until the Book-Hounds follow the scent to its source.
We reproduce them here as handouts to be distributed to your players. Give each Book-Hound his own “turf” worth of rumours, or let the whole party know “the word on the street” everywhere from Hammersmith to Hockney. Black out rumours you really don’t want to follow up on, and write in new ones you really do. Feel free to add more rumours as you think of them, or as your own research into London (or grimoires, or Arthur Machen, or anything else cool) turns up story hooks.
See p. 92 under “Player-Driven Adventures,” “Plot Hooks,” for how you can use these rumours to generate scenes, and eventually plot spines and whole scenarios.
The rumours can be downloaded from here.
From the keyboard of Kenneth Hite…
For those of you who have somehow been occupying yourselves with other pursuits than my game design career, perhaps I should mention that a pre-order edition of my vampire spy thriller RPG Night’s Black Agents is available now from Pelgrane Press. More on that below, where the horrid, horrid stench of commercialism belongs.
I’ve been taking some notes in my own pre-press copy (the “Dragonmeet Special Edition”) based on comments and play (and some early and flattering reviews) from early orderers, and it’s interesting how much the playtest comments and the pre-order comments differ. Playtesters (who, admittedly, were only working from about two-thirds or three-quarters of the text) mostly looked at either big-picture things (“reorder this”) or tactical single-session concerns (“this move costs too much”). Pre-orderers seem to be addressing larger game play questions, many of them more properly GUMSHOE questions (“why don’t all the mooks just unload their whole Shooting pool in one round”) but some specific to elements of my design like the Conspyramid. It may just be a function of the difference between “play this scenario or maybe make one up please” of playtesting and the “try to figure out what you’d run with the game book you just bought” of new-book smell.
Speaking of the Conspyramid, Pelgrane is running a Design Your Own Consypramid Contest over in their precincts. (That link includes the Conspyramid text from the rules, which I think is actually quite clever in parts.) Enter and win!
Also, I added something I noticed on my umptieth viewing of The Bourne Ultimatum, plus one or two things from Robin’s upcoming Esoterrorists 2.0 revision, and I’m a compulsive tweaker of my own text, so the red pen has been busy.
On a recent Night’s Black Agents-centric episode of The Game’s the Thing, the host Ron Blessing asked me how I went about designing the game. As I believe I mentioned on that ‘cast, I hit on the notion that thrillers are speeded-up mysteries (“where’s the sniper?”) fairly early, and then ran across the fairly common (if commonly unfair) idea that a thriller is a mystery in which the reader already knows who did it. That gave me the story skeleton, onto which I put the Conspyramid and Elizabeth Sampat’s Push Pyramid from her incredible RPG Blowback, barely disguised as the Vampyramid in my game. The rest was just lots and lots of viewings of the Bourne trilogy, Taken, Ronin, Heat, and lots more spy stuff to find things that the PCs needed to be able to do, and figuring out how to do them in GUMSHOE. (Watching TV shows like Nikita, Burn Notice, and Leverage kind of split the difference: tactical in-session tools for serial storytelling models.) Although I give PK and dr_kromm a shout-out in the “Designer’s Notes” section, I should reiterate here how much fun I had poring through all the volumes of GURPS Monster Hunters and GURPS Action, making sure I’d covered everything they covered.
It’s not all lifts, by the way. I remain quite smugly proud of figuring out all the various rules for the various modes of play — Burn mode (emotional damage foregrounded), Dust mode (lo-fi gritty spy stories), Mirror mode (treason and betrayal), and Stakes mode (higher purpose). Every day and every way I grow slowly closer to Allen Varney’s amazing job on Paranoia. I’m also very happy with my solution to the “how to get the players to build an adversary map” (that pyramid of note cards, photographs, and string you see on every cop-procedural wall from The Wire on down), not least because my own players resisted doing it. Even the stuff I lifted from other games (like the Tactics from Chuck Wendig’s amazing job on Hunter: the Vigil, which became Tag-Team Tactical Benefits) I gave a mid-air twist before burnishing it into a GUMSHOE mechanic.
Bottom line, I think Night’s Black Agents has probably improved my actual nuts-and-bolts game design chops more than any project since the Decipher Star Trek RPG. (CODA was a much tighter design than ICON, in many ways, and I did a lot more auxiliary design work for it.) Also, it gave me an excuse to watch the Bourne trilogy any time I wanted to, or read Len Deighton novels and call it work.
What’s next? We’re kicking around an Armitage Files style campaign book for Night’s Black Agents, called The Dracula Dossier. It’s going to include the complete, unredacted text of Bram Stoker’s roman-a-clef Dracula, annotated by three generations of British Secret Service analysts. The goal is a vampire version of the Varo Edition, using the reader’s familiarity with the original novel to provide the jumping-off points that Robin had to dole out with serial Armitage letters. I’ll make mytholder do all the heavy lifting, while I re-watch Tinker, Tailor and re-read Declare and call it work.
Odious Commercial Content Below!
The [REDACTED] edition costs about what the eventual hardcover will cost, and includes that hardcover with your name in the credits (when it comes out), the PDF of that hardcover (likewise), and the current bare-bones PDF of the nigh-complete ruleset (right now). Also, you will get a free adventure by mytholder, so that’s nice. These pre-orders will (theoretically) fund the printing of a Smythe-sewn, full-color hardback book — we’re over halfway there, the last I knew — so if you have more money than patience (as robotnik put it) you lose nothing but the interest on that $45 by popping for the [REDACTED] edition now.