Sunday, 22 May 2016

His Name Isn't Bond: Cover & Network (Night's Black Agents)

I've just finished reading Jeffery Deaver's take on British superspy James Bond, Carte Blanche. With this novel, 23 in the Bond series, Deaver updates the Bond mythology, reimagining Fleming's character in the 21st Century. Fleming's basic Bond is still here, complete with Bond's treasure of a Scot housemaid and the Vesper cocktail. Except this time Bond's shaken concoction with a slice of lemon peel gets a different name, Carte Blanche, and broadly speaking that's how the novel develops; Fleming's original, with a slightly different twist.

An example: CIA agent Felix Leiter appears in a support role, because that's how these things are done. At one point Leiter is threatened with death by crusher, his limbs dangling just that bit too close to the mangle. Instantly a Bond fan's mind turns to Live and Let Die where, in the novel, Leiter loses an arm and a leg, but still appears in later stories with prosthetic limbs. Will this be the moment, I wonder, when Deaver's Leiter gets his cyber upgrade? They're doing all kinds of things with artificial limbs these days ...

On the whole I enjoyed it, though I think there are too many changes here to satisfy a Bond purist, and there are elements of the story that make little or no sense. Take the support character Gregory Lamb, a British agent from MI6 sent to back up Bond. He has very little personality, appears only in a few scenes, and departs in a way that seems remarkably out of his established character; moreover, from the moment he arrives to the moment he departs he does nothing interesting, nor does he affect the plot in any way. I had to wonder whether Deaver really thought the character through, or whether he was hastily shoehorned in to solve a plot problem. Maybe someone won a place in the book through a charity lottery and Deaver didn't know what to do with him?

But this isn't a book review. I want to talk about a very cool scene about halfway through, and how it relates to Night's Black Agents.

The setting is Cape Town, South Africa. Bond is trying to pass himself off as a successful mercenary, to worm his way into the villains' confidence. He goes to the head villain's office, makes his pitch, and then says he has some pictures the head villain might be interested in. But Bond doesn't have those on him; they're back at Bond's office. Bond offers to email the .jpegs to the head villain, but the main henchman says no: go to your office, get them, and bring them back here.

Bond obediently does just that, and then the henchman says to the head villain: I don't trust this guy's story. Let's go to his supposed office, which I bet he doesn't have, and catch him in his lie. Which they do, only to find that Bond really does have an office, complete with staff, in this case South African police who Bond has brought on board thanks to what Night's Black Agents would call his Network contacts.

It's a brilliant scene, and immediately made me wonder how something similar could be achieved in Night's Black Agents.

To begin with, kudos to Deaver's Bond for actually having an honest to God cover identity. Usually he marches in under the name Bond, from Universal Export, and somehow nobody ever questions it. But let's consider this from a mechanical perspective, using Cover, Network and Preparedness.

Cover and Network are two pools that don't work the same way as other General pools. Both begin with high ratings that the player doesn't have to pay for - 10 Cover, 15 Network - and neither refresh. Instead the player has to buy them back with experience points.

Cover represents your agent's cover identities, and the stronger the investment, the stronger the cover. So if you invest 4 Cover points to create a pool in a particular identity, it's a pretty good cover. Whenever you do something that would test that Cover - cross a border, gain admission to restrictive areas - then you make a Difficulty test, usually 4, and you can spend from that newly created pool to bolster your chances. Failure means that something has gone wrong, but it's up to the Director what that means. [There is one Cherry that might affect Cover: if your Disguise rating is 8 or more you have Connected Cover, which means you can establish a cover identity that is both plausible and also related to your target in some way.]

Network is your pool of professional contacts, and like Cover the strength of each contact will depend on the amount of points spent on the contact. So in Carte Blanche, Felix Leiter is one of Bond's network contacts, in whom Bond's player probably put a lot of points bearing in mind how useful Leiter is to Bond. In the scene described above the leader of the South African police is also a Network contact, but one in whom Bond's player didn't put a lot of points, since this NPC challenges Bond in several different scenes and refuses to back him up at least once. Difficulty for Network tests depends on Heat; Heat is the amount of attention the authorities, usually the police, are paying to your character.

Preparedness is the game's equivalent to Monopoly's Get Out of Jail Free card. You use this ability whenever you see an opportunity to gain an advantage, or get out of a bad situation, explaining it away as a clever plan you thought of earlier but didn't mention until now.

So in this scene Bond blew a Cover check. Maybe he got overconfident and didn't spend points, only to have that magic number One turn up. What happens next?

The temptation on the Director's side is to turn this into a complete disaster, Han Solo style. That said, Deaver's solution to the problem shows that not every failure ends in failure. True, Bond failed the check. However the villains didn't draw weapons and gun him down on the spot, nor was his Cover completely blown. The failed roll merely meant they were suspicious, and decided to investigate further.

Now, from a game perspective, all the Director needs to say is, 'You're pretty sure [thanks to Tradecraft, Bullshit Detector or what have you] that they didn't believe your story, and will check on it.' If the player wants her character's Cover to hold up in future tests, she needs to do something about this. Otherwise the Difficulty in later scenes may be more than her Cover can handle, and that could be very bad if she happens to be behind enemy lines or in the major villain's lair at the time.

In game terms, I would suggest that unless the Cover is repaired all Difficulty tests for Cover checks go up by the amount of Heat that the group has generated. Which is about the time that the group may really regret stealing all those cars or blowing up those police stations, but that's just tough luck, really.

Bond's solution is a mixture of Preparedness, Reassurance and Network. This could be handled as a special Tactical Fact Finding Benefit, which for the purpose of this example I'm going to call The Big Store.

A Tactical Fact Finding Benefit relies on four attributes: the tactical ability needed to find the information, the action required, the circumstance under which the benefit comes into play, and the nature of the benefit.

In this instance the tactical ability can be Reassurance, which tends to be the con artist Investigative ability. I can see an argument for using Data Recovery as well, but Reassurance seems the obvious way to go.

The action required is this: the character creates an imaginary office, business or agency. This office exists in the virtual world on a 1 point spend plus a Difficulty 3 Digital Intrusion check, or in both virtual and reality on a 2 point spend plus a Difficulty 4 Preparedness check. In the virtual world it has a website, a history, possibly even a TripAdvisor rating if applicable. If it exists in the real world it also has an address and a small number of staff. If the target visits this Store, or just looks at it online, it seems in every way to be a genuine entity. The Director may wish to set limits on the Store, to avoid players claiming to own a huge multinational corporation that nobody ever heard of until five minutes ago. But that's up to the Director.

In Deaver's example, the office has a couple rooms and three or four staff. That's about right. So we're talking about a small operation, possibly a business like a diamond dealer's, a software developer, or small bed-and-breakfast hotel. There's nothing stopping a player from claiming to have a business somewhere other than the character's current location, so a character in Dublin can claim to own a pub in New York, no problem.

If the Store exists in the real world and the on-site staff are to be badasses in disguise, then there ought to be a Network spend to create those badassess. Otherwise they're regular civilians. Probably temps hired for the day, possibly criminals, but in any case they won't suddenly reveal themselves to be marksmen or Martial Artists. Nor will they fling themselves, lemming-style, in front of a bullet to save a character. If used as Mook Shields there probably ought to be a Stability penalty, since they really didn't deserve it.

The Big Store is used to bolster Cover. A grifter would use a Big Store to con a mark, using Cover to foster the mark's belief that the grifter really is who he says he is. The player's doing exactly the same thing.

So the benefit, which is the final point to consider, is this: the Difficulty for Cover tests in one scene is reduced by 3.

In context, going back to Bond, the scene plays like this:

Bond flubs his initial Cover check. He knows the villain is suspicious. So Bond establishes a Big Store, using Preparedness to make that possible since this is probably a 2 point spend situation. The reduced Difficulty is then used to make another Cover check in a new scene - remember, Difficulty increased by Heat and then reduces by the Store - and if this one succeeds, then the Difficulty of all future checks is no longer increased by the amount of Heat the group has generated. It drops back to 4, and Bond breaths a sigh of relief.

I hope that all makes sense! It's an expensive TFFB, so most players aren't going to try this every time they deal with an obnoxious bureaucrat at passport control. But for those moments when you're dealing with someone really important, like the major villain or a significant henchman, the Store can be the difference between a Cover that works, and a trip to the river with concrete shoes on your feet.

As far as Carte Blanche is concerned, if you're a Bond purist then you probably oughtn't to pick it up, as it may frustrate you. However there's plenty of fun to be had here, as well as some ideas for a Director to steal. I particularly recommend Bond's solution to a problem that Fleming never tackled: what to do if you capture, rather than kill, the villain. And no, that's not a spoiler. It's a Bond novel; you didn't think Bond was going to lose, did you? Deaver hasn't published any other Bond novels, but if he does, they may be worth seeking out.


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