Friday, 11 September 2015

Nodes, Glorious Nodes (Night's Black Agents)

If you're a Director planning out your first Night's Black Agents game, you may begin to wonder just what these Node things are that make up the Conspyramid. The main book goes into some detail, but ultimately doesn't tackle the question of what makes up a Node. Instead it focuses on what a Node does: provides protection, income, or blood, for the most part. It also provides some examples of potential Nodes, such as banks, human trafficking rings, local gangs, and so on. All of that's great, but the Director may wonder how to inject some personality into these skeletal creations. Otherwise the average Node is just a two dimensional punching bag for the players to smack on.

When discussing Bookhounds and the story arc, many moons ago, I mentioned the importance of the antagonist, using Sarah Montgomery and Stanley David Fentiman as examples. I went on to point out that, to be useful, an antagonist needs to have power, at an appropriate level for the setting and their function in the plot. I touched on Fentiman again when discussing Villains, using him as an example of villain design. In that example, I posited that the Director should decide what a villain wants, what the villain's prepared to kill for, and other background points.

All of which is a preamble for the point I'm going to put to you now: a Node should be treated no differently from a Villain, for the purposes of campaign design. A Node should have power to affect the plot. A Node has things it wants, things it's in charge of, things it's prepared to kill for. A Node has personality, and it's up to the Director what that personality ought to be.

Probably the best example of a Node in modern television fiction appears in HBO's crime drama The Wire, Season Two. Frank Sobotka, played by Chris Bauer, is a low level Node in a larger criminal conspiracy. That conspiracy is involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling on the Baltimore docks, and it needs Sobotka, or someone like him, because Sobotka, through his position as secretary treasurer for the local Stevedore's Union, can help them get their goods through Baltimore's docks without attracting attention.

Sobotka knows very little about the greater purpose of the conspiracy. He doesn't care to know, because if he did, he might have to rethink his position, and he needs the money the conspiracy provides to revitalize the docks and secure the long-term future of his union friends. He's also trying to keep his family clear of the conspiracy as much as possible, but thanks to the recklessness of his son Ziggy, that isn't as successful as he'd like.

Already we're beginning to see what makes this Node successful, as a character within a greater story. Frank doesn't have a lot of power. He can't sent hordes of faceless assassins or attack helicopters off to strike at his enemies. But he does have enough power for his role in the plot, as a go-between. He has enough power within his Union to arrange for some minor harassment and obstruction of the protagonists' efforts. He can call on more significant muscle through his links with more important Nodes in the conspiracy.

However what makes him really effective as a Node isn't the power he can exercise, but his personality. He has goals that go beyond his role in the conspiracy. He has connections - his son Ziggy, his nephew Nick, the power brokers he's trying to bribe to keep the docks alive - that complicate his life and keep him from getting what he wants. All this is important, if you want a Node to be effective within the narrative.

Note that this is a different thing from being effective as part of the Conspiracy. It could be argued that Frank's effectiveness within his Conspiracy is relatively low, but that doesn't make his story less interesting. Never forget that you're not designing a Conspiracy, but a story, and this story isn't about how wonderful or powerful the Conspiracy is.  It's about how the Conspiracy falls.

So what does make up a successful Node? Well, given the example, in order to be successful a Node would need:
  • Power appropriate to its function.
  • Goals, which may be personal or professional.
  • Assets, which it uses to reach its Goals.
So let's design a Node from the ground up.

Let's make this one a level 3 Node, at the Provincial level. So it has a certain level of authority and importance, but isn't in charge of group policy. Let's make it part of the Conspiracy's income streams. In fact, let's make it a private bank, one of those staples of spy fiction. It operates out of somewhere like Switzerland or France, and rather than have it a centuries-old institution like Coutts or Landolt & Cie, let's make it a little more modern, and pattern it after something like NBAD Private Bank (Suisse). Banks like these exist to hold other people's assets, and do so discreetly. In NBAD's case it's wholly owned by another banking group, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, but we can assume that, if our Node is wholly owned by another group, that group isn't part of the Conspiracy. It has been corrupted from within, so only a few of its top people are actually aware of its role within the greater Conspiracy.

A bank of this type is often fairly small. Rothchilds, for example, employ a little over 1,600 people, while Warburg has only 1,230 employees. It often has several offices, spread over a large area. Warburg's base is in Hamburg, but it also has offices in Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Zurich and Luxembourg,. That suggests that the total number of employees in any one office is probably small, perhaps less than a hundred. You wouldn't need to corrupt more than one or two senior people to have control over an office, and that office probably supports a level of business out of all proportion to its size; millions at least, if not billions of euro.

As a private bank, it is run by a partnership, and again, this will be a small number of people, each of whom have power according to the size of their holding within the company. Again, the conspiracy will only need to corrupt one, perhaps two partners to have significant control over the Node.

With all that in mind, we have Bankhaus Klingemann, of Bonn. Established 1956, this institution is a post-war re-consolidation of three pre-war private banks, all of which failed as a result of losses incurred during the war. The assets that had become valueless were disposed of, while the assets that still held value were kept. At the time of its incorporation it was suggested that the Bankhaus was established not because their predecessors had failed, but in order to launder assets held by former Nazi elite. These rumors have, of course, been denied repeatedly over the years by the partnership, of whom Joachim Klingemann is the senior partner. His son Eric and daughter Lisle are both partners, as are four others, each of whom have connection with the pre-war banks.

Bankhaus Klingemann is an investment bank. It advises its clients how best to raise financial capital, and as a consequence it has its fingers in many different pies all over the world. In its early days it focused heavily on construction and real estate, as part of the post-war reconstruction effort; currently its main interest is software development companies, particularly in jurisdictions within Europe, though it has a significant sideline in mining, especially in East Asia, a holdover from its former interests.

The Conspiracy controls Lisle Klingemann, and one other partner, Albert Ahrens. Through them it controls the Bankhaus' Swiss and Paris offices.

The Conspiracy roped in Lisle thanks to her gambling addiction. In her younger years she was a notorious high-stakes player, known from Macau to Monte Carlo for the extravagance of her bets. Her father always helped her out of whatever hole she found herself in, until one day, on her twenty fifth birthday, he lowered the boom: no more, or I disown you. That was when the Conspiracy stepped in, and offered her a way out. Become one of us, and you can have the power to make people do whatever you want. In return, we expect you to join your father's bank, and rise in its ranks. Rather than give up her lifestyle, Lisle agreed.

Albert was one of her first victims. He'd been Uncle Albert to her, all her life; fat, disgusting Uncle Albert. It was far too entertaining a thought not to make him her slave. He'd bark like a dog if she told him to. However she was indiscreet, and her brother Eric caught on. Not to her new found power, but her relationship with Albert, which Eric sees in an altogether different light.

Since then Lisle's been much more cautious. She needs to be, in order to influence their father, who's much more strong willed than she would have given him credit for. Also, she lacks the technical expertise Eric has in abundance, which makes her less able to talk to software development clients on their own terms.

There are three questions to consider: what is this Node's power? What is its Goals? What Assets does it possess?

This Node's power is financial. It can leverage millions without any effort at all, It maintains several private accounts whose sole purpose is to act as a kind of slush fund for Conspiracy assets. As a consequence of this financial power, it has a certain level of influence in many different areas. Government officials will bend over backwards for a bank able to affect, positively or negatively, the state's economy. Companies who want investment capital will help this Node when they can. Certain industry events or conventions may be funded by the Bankhaus, and so on.

Its Goals are to keep the Conspiracy's financial operations running smoothly. Lisle and Albert have their own Goals, of course. Lisle wants to consolidate her control over her father, and edge her brother Eric out of the partnership altogether. She also wants to gamble whenever she pleases, but she's got to be much more discreet about it these days. Unexplained trips on the company jet may reveal her itinerary. Albert wants to keep Lisle happy, but it's possible that her continued mental domination has awakened certain desires in him that, until now, he's been able to suppress. He may have a collection of Lisle-a-likes kept at private apartments, or be a familiar figure at local BDSM establishments.

Its primary Assets are Lisle and Albert themselves, but each will have secondary assets of their own. Secretaries, assistants, houses, cars, the company jet, and so on. The offices they command could also be considered assets, as well as the accounts they control. Each probably has at least one bodyguard. Lisle may have a hacker permanently on her payroll, to ensure that her constant drain of company funds, to fuel her gambling addiction, goes unnoticed. If Uncle Albert kidnaps Lisle-a-likes to populate his private dungeons, then he may have a kidnap team on the payroll. Each office will have some kind of security detail, probably sub-contracted, and while these won't be fully armed mercs they will be at least moderately competent. Finally, one or both of them may have sufficient criminal contacts to hire an outside hit man. All this is in addition to whatever muscle the Node can leverage from other, lesser Nodes.

That's enough to be getting on with, I think. With this information the Director knows enough about the Node to determine what it wants, what it can do, and what it might do when threatened by the protagonists. After that, it's up to the players how things proceed.



  1. I think you should add one question to your node checklist, unless you think its a given: how can the players interact with each node? What sort of operations would attract its notice, either on its own accord (or the principals') or the Conspiracy's. Is the node so adept at a particular vampyramid response that it becomes the inevitable point group for such actions? Likewise, what sort of leads will bring the PCs across its path? Mentioning a suitable ability in a suitable location (Gambling in a casino with Lisle present) is a perfectly good minimum.

  2. TBH, I take it as an almost-given. The players will interact with each node depending on its role within the pyramid, and on its links with the other nodes. That last part is critical. The characters may beat up a Level One Node asset, and find clues on it that link to this Level Three, or it might be any one of a dozen other things. Point being that the interaction is going to depend greatly on the other Nodes within the pyramid, which is something you can't really think about until you know what those Nodes are. In that sense, it's like a puzzle; you can't work out what the crinkly bit does until you've put together some of the other pieces.

    There are some factors which may become obvious as you design the Node. Take the example, Bankhaus Klingemann. It's unreasonable to think, given its assets, that it will be leading kill teams against the enemy. It's also unreasonable to think that it will have access to significant occult power, or that it has direct access to government security services, like the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. That's not what banks do, not even evil banks. But it is reasonable to assume that it has a lot of rich and influential friends, and that it can call in favors from those friends. Given its software development position, for example, it must know a lot of tech firms, including a lot of telecom companies. Could it call in favors which would allow it to have an easier time hacking the character's comms, or computers? Perhaps!

    By its nature you shall know it, in other words. Once you know what it is, and what it owns, then you're two steps towards working out how it might interact with the players.

  3. I was actually thinking about smaller scale interactions with the principals of the node, too - just something along the lines of the brief ability notes in the Director's Handbook entries. It would be a shame if the players don't get to delve into Uncle Albert's wonderfully depraved psyche - or realize they could use a Lisle double against her ... or the Conspiracy. If they don't experience it, it becomes entertainment solely for the Director; it is surely too good to be for that audience alone.