Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Dusting Off Price

I've been reading Pelgrane Press' Night's Black Agents, trying to digest its ideas and see whether or not it will work for me. I think it might. However this may be because, in the first few pages, it references one of my favorite authors: Anthony Price.

Night's Black Agents, for those who don't know it, is an RPG horror setting that presumes vampires exist, and are at the heart of a gigantic, possibly world-spanning conspiracy. You know this because, until recently, you were working for them; but, having discovered your masters' true identity, you're now more of a liability than an asset. Vampires hate loose ends, so if you want to keep on breathing, you need to do something decisive, and fast. It's a spy game at its heart, with you as the spy, betrayed by your former masters, and now on the run.

Spy games are exactly the sort of thing Anthony Price was fond of. Price, a former journalist, turned to novel writing in the early 1970s and, over time, put together nineteen intricately crafted stories. His two favorite characters were David Audley, a former tanker in World War Two who gets recruited for Intelligence work in the aftermath of the war, and Colonel Butler, also a soldier, who is recruited at much the same time by the same person, and who eventually rises to head of the Intelligence branch that Audley works for. Most of Price's work was set in the 1970s and 80s, with occasional glimpses back into the war years. I say was because, although I've no proof one way or the other, it's long been my assumption that Price is dead. Certainly he hasn't published anything for over two decades, though I see that, according to Existential Ennui, he was still with us in 2011.

The Night's Black Agents connection comes early in the Modes section when, in talking about the Dust option, Hite says: "To instead recreate the gritty, low-fi espionage world of Anthony Price or Charles McCarry ... you can de-power the game into Dust mode," and he goes on to give advice as to how this may be done. "In Dust mode," Hite continues, "the vampires and their agents will be far more challenging and powerful in open combat. Design, and encourage your players to design, operations that avoid shootouts unless the team has overwhelming positional advantage, or some surprising ace in the hole."

If there's one thing Price is especially known for, it's the cerebral nature of his plots. At one point you may be convinced beyond all hope of reason that the supposed villains - they might be KGB, they might be agents of another foreign power - are secretly after the gold of Troy, or a list of names from an old Napoleonic warship, or hidden treasure from the English Civil War, only to discover that the truth of the matter is something altogether different. In his Other Paths To Glory, much depends on the fate of a regiment that went missing, almost to a man, on the Somme in 1916; yet it's not until the final chapters that the reader discovers why these soldiers' deaths were - are - so important in 1974.

Double and triple agents are commonplace. One of the enduring tropes of Price's works is Debreczen, the alleged school for spies in East Germany, whose sole purpose was to create people for very deep cover operations. They weren't supposed to deliver secrets; their role was to exist, and keep on existing for as long as possible, rising in the ranks of whichever organization they had penetrated. Imagine an Intelligence agency, a corporation, a political organization where the leadership wasn't merely corrupted, but had been - from the very beginning - working for the Other Side. Audley and his fellow spies were never entirely sure whether Debreczen had even existed; merely the threat that something like it might exist kept them awake nights. Because once you introduce that sort of thing into the mix, anything's possible; the people you report to, work for, vote for, might not be who you always believed them to be.

I can see that kind of setting working very well in a Night's Black Agents game. The whole idea of double and triple crosses, agents who might have been working for the enemy all along, ought to be meat and drink to a Vampire Spies game. If anyone's wondering what a Price setting might be like, I offer the following guidelines:

1. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Very few agents in Price's world get far on guts and guns. In the early chapters of October Men, Italian agent Villari is set up as the perfect bravo, swaggering, assured, lethal. Yet when the bullets fly, it is not he but his more bookish and cowardly partner, Boselli, who emerges triumphant; even if it is, at least in part, by complete accident. Those who get into gunfights often die young, in Price's world.

2. Nobody is who they seem to be. The Brigadier in The Hour of the Donkey is anything but, the dentist in Our Man in Camelot is no dentist, and Paul Mitchell, reluctant hero of Other Paths to Glory is no soldier, but that's all right, as his partner Nikki MacMahon isn't really from the French Ministry of Tourism. When in doubt, always assume someone's lying about their true identity. It saves time.

3. Everybody's lying about their intentions, as well as their identity. In The Labyrinth Makers, Price's best known novel, the prevailing assumption throughout the book is that the Russian top brass who wants to visit England is doing so because he thinks that, as a result of a recent discovery, the true location of the gold of Troy, lost during the War when Germany fell, is about to be discovered. Then we're led to believe he's after something else, only to discover that what he was after might not have been the important thing at all. Or perhaps it really was Trojan gold ... But the smoke and mirrors is integral to the plot; it's not like a Bond novel, where the true identity of, say, Auric Goldfinger is known pretty much from the opening pages, and the point of the narrative is to discover how he intends to burgle Fort Knox. Goldfinger has many faults, but concealing his intentions isn't one of them. He wouldn't last long in Price's world.

4. The stakes are both unbelievably high, and potentially meaningless, all at the same time. In one novel, which I shall not name, the entire scheme - which has already claimed several lives and is about to claim many more by the climactic moments - is undone by damp and wet. Another hinges, in its final moments, on ancient grenades. Perhaps we're finally about to find out what happened at Debreczen, or perhaps we're about to find out that Debreczen never existed in the first place. The illusion of Trojan gold, in the first novel, is repeated again and again; fantastic treasures, that somehow turn into worthless lead.

5. Relationships are key. Most of these novels take place before widespread computerization, and the reader's left with the impression that Price himself didn't think much of technology. For his agents, it's all about who you know, the expert you can turn to for that much-needed clue. The trading of favours comes up again and again, in Price's world. Even knowing your enemy puts you one step ahead; October Men opens up with an Italian spymaster recognizing, in a few fleeting seconds, an old foe at a busy airport terminal, and in more than one story David Audley's knowledge of that preeminent Russian archaeologist and spy, Panin, saves the day.

At any rate, that ought to be enough to get the Director thinking. I shall need to read Night's Black Agents a few more times to see if it really is for me, but early results are promising!

No comments:

Post a Comment