I am running a game of Night’s Black Agents (NBA) in the Coriolis setting. Now that we have half-a-dozen sessions completed, and the basic outline of the Vampires and their conspiracy is known to the players, I think I can post a bit of information about the campaign.
Night’s Black Agents is a GUMSHOE engine game published by Pelgrane Press with a default setting of secret agents hunting vampires and vampire minions in the modern world. The characters are expected to be competent on par with James Bond and Jason Bourne, but are operating independently of any agency they used to be a member of. The GUMSHOE engine’s core mechanic is to roll a d6, spending points from a pool to boost your chance of success. Points only refresh fully between “operations” with some limited options in play to refresh some points. Investigative abilities work differently – they always succeed, but you can spend points for extra effect. For example, when one of my players went to examine the records at the Prayer Temples on Algol, hoping to track down information on a priest of the Order of Martyrs that no one has seen in almost 50 years, just using Bureaucracy is enough to find the core clue that leads the party closer to their goal, but spending two points meant he got the information in a few hours rather than it taking two full days in dusty archives.
Other things I quite like in NBA include:
- spending points to just make shit up when you need it: Cover to get new IDs, Network to get reliable NPC help, Preparedness to make sure you packed the rocket launcher when the villain flees in their helicopet
- MOS – pick a specific ability for an auto success once per session
- Thriller chase rules – not too complicated, not too simple, they hit the Goldilocks spot for me
- Heat – a system for tracking how much legal trouble the players are in
- Conspiracy pyramid – a way of fleshing out the opposition, from street level, to city leaders, to the core leadership
- Conspiracy reactions – as the players work their way up the conspiracy pyramid, the GM has a set of tools to inspire the conspiracy’s reactions, from bribing the PCs to stop, to assassinating their loved ones and burning their Solace down, to the dread lord Iblis waking to deal with them personally.
- Our vampires are different – lots of options for customising the vampires to your campaign, and working out what can Block them, what the Dread, and what their Banes are.
NBA is based on the assumption that vampires are evil. There are no good vampires, and no real support for vampire PCs. I like this.
Coriolis is something I backed on Kickstarter in 2016, and is Published by Free League. Like a lot of Swedish games, it has astounding art production values compared to the games I grew up on in the 1980s. The standard game engine is a dice pool system, with a mix of skills, talents, and gear, and the standard mode of play is to assume “have spaceship, will travel”. Where it gets different from the other sci-fi rpg settings is the infusion of religion throughout the setting and game system. Want to reroll? Pray to the Icons, give the GM a Darkness Point, and roll the die. With the Arabic themes, the religion has a lot of the tone from the Abrahamic religions of Earth-That-Was, but the Icons are more of a syncretic Polytheism that can change from world to world.
I found enough detail in the available material to quickly flesh out factions, NPCs and local intrigues, but also lots of room for me to just plonk things down as I saw fit. In play I found the deck of Icon cards to be a useful mechanic. When I want a scene complication or a guide to NPC reaction, I draw a card and see what it suggests to me. One attraction to Coriolis is that its not too big a setting, unlike say Traveller’s Third Imperium with its thousands of worlds. If you look at the map below you will see that the travel routes all pass through a handful of key hubs in a few big loops or chains. Depending on PC actions, I am expecting them to spend a lot of time on half-a-dozen locations, and to largely pass through other systems fairly quickly.
My campaign pitch was along these lines: “It is hunting vampires in space, in a setting that is like Firefly meets 1001 Arabian Nights. I promise you will get to fight the big bad, I do not promise that you will survive the fight.” After some discussion on the mode of play, we agreed to play a high trust game and not use the betrayal rules. I also promised as GM to use Darkness Points (see below) to make scenes more interesting or complicated, not just to increase the damage the PCs were going to take.
My reason for using NBA rather than the Coriolis game engine was twofold. First, I wanted to run a focused game, that had a definite goal, which when reached would see the campaign wrap up. My standard GM practice has been to run open-ended campaigns that last around three years, but I am not getting any younger, and I have a lot of game systems/settings I want to try out. The second reason was that NBA looked like a good system for me to run for a game focused on hunting bad monsters. I have run investigative games in the past (Call of Cthulhu) and I appreciated the GUMSHOE philosophy of making clue gathering straightforward so the game can move on to the next chase or confrontation scene. In play I enjoy saying “If you do not have enough information to make a decision, you need to go gather more information”.
I did make some modifications to the game engines
- Darkness Points were kept from Coriolis. One way in which Coriolis makes space travel dangerous is that you always gain Darkness Points when you jump between star systems, or if you travel out to the Deep Dark in a solar system.
- Mystic powers were taken from Coriolis and adapted to GUMSHOE. A player with mystic power gets one ability with their first mysticism rating point, and a second ability if they reach an eight point rating.
- Cybernetic equipment is treated as a GUMSHOE “special power” that costs five experience points to buy (plus some game world money), but the cost by can be discounted by 3-5 points by taking on complications.
- Armour was adapted from Coriolis, and is generally worth 1-3 points of protection, but advanced suits get more customisation options. Because Cybernetic Armour can stack with worn armour, I made a specific rule that a PCs Athletics rating is divided by their points of Cybernetic Armour for determing if they are eligible for the “cherry” benefits of Athletics 8+ (the actual Athletics Pool is unchanged).
- Coriolis has a lot of weapon options, where NBA keeps things to 1d6 damage +/-2 on the damage roll (plus a lot of options for thriller combat tactics). I decided to keep the +/-2 damage cap, but to give some weapons the Boon/Bane feature, where 2d6 are rolled and either the best die (Boon) or worst die (Bane) are kept. Everything else was fairly straightforward, although I have made auto fire Thermal weapons extremely lethal. If a Thermal weapon hits two targets in its arc of fire, the user gets a free bonus attack against all other targets in the arc. All targets means all, other PCs, innocent NPCs, fuel tanks, macguffins, etc, the Thermal weapon hits everything.
You will find more detail on the hacks in this Dropbox File.
While I also used some material from Ashen Stars, a version of GUMSHOE for sci-fi adventures in a post-post-scarcity universe, I found when working through its rules that it was just a bit too weird to adapt easily. Too much of the game was specific to the Ashen Stars universe, and required a translation step for use in the Coriolis setting. Having made one use of its ship combat system, I am not sure it actually works in terms of posing a threat to the PCs unless I make very high bids from the NPCs, and in future I might use the NBA chase rules more often. Because I think the tone of the campaign should see the PCs running away from Stealth Cruisers.
Session Zero was a bit cliched. The PCs woke up early from suspended animation aboard the Blue Danube, with a couple of months of memories missing. They disabled the medical robot that tried to sedate them, and explored the ship. Through a glass window they get to see a cloud of black smoke killing hapless people in a cargo bay. At this stage, rather than focusing on escape, the PCs worked their way to the bridge, eliminated some mooks and investigated. In the background I kept a lock counting down. So the vampire attacked them while they were climbing down a ladder shaft. The players shot their weapons at it enough to make it run into smoke, but not before one was bitten. In this campaign, a vampire bite will trigger latent mystic powers. Making it down to the Shuttle deck, the PCs tried fighting their way past bodyguards armed with Vulcan auto weapons, with the regenerating reforming vampire coming up from behind. This was a hard fight, with more than one player on negative health by the time they escaped on the shuttle, and a second PC getting bitten.
From here the PCs were able to hide in a sargasso of wrecked space ships, and salvage one they could escape the system from. My goals in session zero were to give the players a reason to be together and to gel together, and to demonstrate that without knowledge of the vampires, mere application of firepower is insufficient to “solve” the central problem of the campaign (the mystery of why latent mystics are being shipped en mass to a system filled with space wrecks, which as the PCs have found, includes them).
One thing I asked for from the players, was a unique origin story for each PC. This was to provide at least five starting locations for the campaign where the PCs would absolutely most definitely find some clues about the vampire conspiracy.
So after jumping through the closed Menkar gate, getting blamed for the destruction of the science ship Light of Babylon, and stopping at Sadaal long enough to get false papers, the party headed for Nargar. One of the PCs had been involved with a colony placed near a dead alien structure. Shades of Aliens. Not a lot happened here – much careful sneaking around – but the party did meet Jumuna, a Draconite Knight converted by the vampires, but also romantically connected to a PC. Unsure of their ground, the party chose flight over combat.
Algol is where the PCs currently are. They went there to follow another PC origin story, which involved a tale of a vampire hunting priest. The hope is they will pick up information on vampire vulnerabilities or ways of defending themselves against them. So far they have sold “agricultural machinery” to rebels, visited the important temples and nightclubs, but also contacted a djinn who is willing to help them if they can save Ezekiel Wrath, the priest they are looking for, from an assassination attempt that will take place during the next major Demon Star eclipse (now only two days away). The big reveal from the Djinn is that the vampires are Shaitan, children of Iblis, who in Islamic mythology was either a fallen angel or a fallen djinn. Where humans are made from clay, djinn are made from the flame of the fire, Angels from the light of creation, and Shaitan from the smoke of the fire. One PC survived a terror attack from rebels armed with the guns they sold them earlier in the day.
Feedback from the players on the campaign so far has been positive. We are all enjoying the change of pace from our last campaign using Runequest 6. The system is something we are still learning in play, in some cases we have to unlearn reflexes from more traditional games. We spent too much time sneaking on Nagar, when I could have said “the base is empty of life, tell me how you investigate it”. Anyhow, can’t wait for the next game, as we left it on a cliffhanger with a Courtesan pointing a pistol at a PC who had woken from a mystic experience while in a VR proxy tape booth that put him through the experience of being decapitated by a vampire.