Sunday, 18 September 2016

Tweety Bird and the Bug Zapper (Night's Black Agents)

This post is inspired by two recent news articles about stun guns and birds of prey.

The number of stun guns seized by British border police has increased by 70% over the last year, according to a recent Guardian article. The devices, which are illegal in the United Kingdom, are often brought in by criminals seeking to avoid more serious gun possession charges, but are sometimes 'smuggled' by accident as tourists buy novelty items, like stun guns disguised as mobile phones, without thinking of the consequences.

Meanwhile Dutch police are training birds of prey to bring down drones, again according to a Guardian piece. The birds have been tested over the last few years and the tests have been successful. The trained eagles bring down the drones like featherless pigeons, and though less tasty than their usual prey the eagles have a 100% success rate and no injuries.

In Night's Black Agents the use of stun guns is not precisely discouraged, but not welcomed with open arms either. 'Whatever other effects they may have,' say the main rules, on page 62, 'Tasers also short-circuit combat scenes, and turn fights into one-shot beats. In other words, tasers are boring.'  Of course on that same page the authors also say 'they're invaluable investigative tools in those minor excursions that precede [the climactic confrontation].'

It's a tricky balance. The problem is mechanical. Guns and other weapons do damage directly to Health; lose enough of it, and you fall over. It's a mechanic that's served us well since the first Fighter met the first Orc in a ten by ten room. Stun guns ignore that whole system by not doing damage to Health at all, instead producing a specific effect instantaneously. At least D&D let you have a saving throw, but in NBA it's zap-crackle-thump. It's like giving all wizards the Fireball spell right from the start.

Theoretically the Thriller Combat rules negate this by giving the skilled combatant extra tools to play with. If Woody Allen with a stun gun goes up against Schwarzenegger, the mighty Governator can Jump In and then Disarm, or Extra Attacks, or whatever else will pound Allen into hamburger before he gets a zap off. If the Governator's MOS happens to be Hand to Hand all the better, though knowing him his MOS is probably Shooting. Allen can't do much about this since his Weapons pool is, if anything, -3. His Athletics may be even lower.

Arguably in these circumstances a taser makes fights more interesting, not boring, because it ups the stakes. Suddenly your martial arts expert who was breezing through the fight has to think about what happens next.

However I've yet to encounter a player whose mastery of the combat rules is up to that task. More often than not the player doesn't know everything her character is capable of, and there's an element of deer-in-headlights the minute it becomes a Contest. This shouldn't be an issue with experienced players, but you can hardly give a group access to everything up to and including Hellfire missiles and then say 'No! You can't use the stun guns till you're experienced!'

The stun gun problem becomes even more of a conundrum when you consider that the police carry tasers. The UK police often use them, as do the French, and while less common elsewhere in Europe many of the European police forces have them. It's pointless pretending the players wouldn't have access to tasers, not when the characters get a free Glock with their Weetabix every morning.

On the flip side, players using stun guns against, say, vampires should get short shrift, and not just because tasering Dracula and then pounding pointy bits of wood into the Vampire Lord's quivering flesh - paging Doctor Freud, I say again, paging Doctor Freud - lacks drama. Tasers work on human biology, and the whole point is that biology is no longer an issue for vampires.

But there's that mechanical problem again. In game Vampires have Health like the rest of us. Hit 'em, shoot 'em, stab 'em and eventually they fall down. It takes a lot of effort, but it can be done. So if they're vulnerable to weapons, what makes tasers any different?

In those circumstances the best defense is a good offense. Specifically, an offense that doesn't let the characters get a shot off. Vampires didn't get to where they are today by letting a bunch of jumped-up monkeys take command of the combat arena. Distortion, Temporal Distortion, Vampiric Speed, Apportation, all make tasers a bit irrelevant. Moreover I'd argue that any Regeneration or Strength ability means whatever effect a taser might have is immediately negated as soon as the ability kicks in. Get in, wash yourself in the blood of your enemies, rinse, repeat.

All that said, would I encourage taser use in my game? Well ... yes.

While I agree with the concern that tasers make hand to hand fights less cinematic, I'd say that concern is over-hyped. I'd also say that there are mechanical ways around the problem, like Regeneration, or by using Aberrance (possibly combined with Strength) to overcome the effect. Finally I'd argue that in certain styles of game - Dust, Mirror - a means of knocking people out without permanent injury is extremely useful, and in keeping with the genre.

In The Prisoner, for instance, Number Six is knocked unconscious all the time; usually by gas, but then the taser hadn't really been invented yet, not in its current form. In fact the trope's borrowing from a very old pulp concept, the Mickey Finn. Sam Spade gets knocked out often by the old Mickey, as do all the pulp heroes. Turning to video games for a moment, in nearly all the Stealth genre titles - Thief, Dishonored, Deus Ex - there's some kind of sleep mechanic. Corvo has his darts, Adam Jensen his silenced sleep pistol and rifle, Garret his cudgel, bow and peculiar arrows. Heck, even Hitman, a series all about the killing, allows Agent 47 to knock out targets non-lethally.

In fact Stealth titles tend to have a mechanic that Night's Black Agents lacks; a hand-to-hand nonlethal takedown without the taser. There's an implicit assumption that combat must be lethal, an assumption that, I suspect, goes right back to that Orc in his ten by ten room. Yet most Stealth titles give out achievements by the bucketful for 'clean hands' Infiltration. Killing is implicitly discouraged, either by some hit to your character's karma or, as with Invisible Inc, by substantially increasing the difficulty of the infiltration with each kill.

So yes, I would allow the taser. I would encourage nonlethal takedowns, as they fit the setting and the genre. I'd up the Infiltration difficulty with each kill, and I'd probably invent new Achievements to encourage clean hands infiltration too, something like this:

Like A Ghost: complete the infiltration and exfiltration of a guarded facility requiring Difficulty 5 or higher Infiltration, without killing any guards or civilians on site. Refresh 3 points Infiltration.

Now let's turn to Tweety Bird.

When I first read that article my mind immediately turned to thoughts of bats, giant or otherwise, taking down drones. And lo, my heart grew warm with loving feelings. However it then occurred to me that I don't often see players use drones, at least not as efficiently as they could.

Now, this might be a geographic issue. I live in Bermuda; there aren't many drones here. There are some, and they do excellent work, but the fad really hasn't taken off the way it has in the States or Europe. So my players don't think of them as an option.

However there are plenty of examples, particularly in recent video games, of drones being used in ways I've not yet seen tabletop players emulate. Say, in Tactical Fact Finding Benefits or improvised Cooperative moves like this:

Military Science / Human Terrain and Mechanics / Surveillance: use a drone to scout ahead and tag potential targets and infiltration routes. Note that the benefit implicitly acknowledges there's more than one way to get the same effect.

Mind you, it also acknowledges that, as Director, I'm never sure whether a drone used this way counts as a Mechanics or Surveillance spend. I can see a good argument for Piloting too, but that just makes things even more complicated. On the whole I'd lean towards Mechanics.

A drone could also be used to spray an area with some kind of aerosol-based bane. This would probably be a Cooperative Mechanics/Vampirology, with a potentially devastating effect: imagine the vampire, having hidden itself in some inaccessible spot, emerging from its coffin only to get a squirt of holy water or similar right in the face.

Of course there's the more direct approach. Drones threaten airports all the time, hence the Dutch eagles. A private jet coming in to land could find itself taken out by an explosives-packed drone sucked right up into the engine.

Playing with the concept, there are those simplified inflatable fish drones. Picture a stealth kill in a crowded place, or a party, with one of those babies. It would have to be a very simple lightweight payload, probably some kind of contact poison spray, but for sheer cinematics you can't beat a flying fish killer. The target will never see it coming.

Then there's drone hacking. The Dutch, as mentioned in the article, have tried this but apparently it isn't as efficient as eagle hitmen. That said, an agency with government money to burn - like, say, Edom - has probably cracked that problem. I'd rate a drone hack at Difficulty 4 for commercial models, and 8 for military drones. At least, I devoutly hope it's 8 given the armament those things carry.

That's enough for this week. Enjoy!

Edit: ordinarily I don't update these, but in a Tweet this afternoon Ken Hite was kind enough to say:

'Nonlethal takedown is just HtH against a mook (Player-Facing Combat); drones use Piloting or Driving, Agents pick'

So the drone question is resolved.

Not as convinced ref: nonlethal, as treating it as basic HtH against a mook doesn't really fulfil the choke-hold visual you get from Stealth titles, which is what I'm struggling towards. It's a bit like the Outside Xbox three-ways-to-play videos; I'm aiming for a full Andy, and coming up with Jane, at best. Possibly Mike if things really go pear-shaped.

I'm tempted to use the Called Shot rules, but that can get very expensive very quickly which would make it pointless in mook combats. Still, a Called Shot Throat (from behind, to fulfil the cinematic requirement) would silence the target.

I think, reluctantly, that calling it pure hand-to-hand is the most practical approach, even if it doesn't scratch the itch. Pure HtH with an obligatory bit of technothriller monologue would be even better.

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