I mentioned I'm involved in Stygian Fox's Fear's Sharp Little Needles Kickstarter. Well since that post the campaign has exceeded all expectations and is now well on its way to hitting several high stretch goals. As a consequence I'm writing more stuff, both for the main KS and for the backer exclusive pdf Aspirations, unlocked at the twenty thousand quid level. Want me to write even more stuff? Pledge more money!
Now, on to the main attraction.
So we have the bare bones, a mutant vampire conspiracy with its Goals and basic Power level. From here another question arises: what kind of scenarios will we be designing for this campaign? Following on from that, how do we begin plotting the Arc?
When this question came up for Bookhounds I said:
The answer to that is you need the first act to establish the setting, the characters and the overall mood of the game. Whether the players are veterans, novices or a mixture of the two, they've never played in this game world before, because it's your game world, fashioned out of your ideas and imagination ... They don't even have to encounter the Mythos, or anything supernatural, in the opening act, so long as the opening act is true to the overall mood.
This is still true, but there's a caveat. Bookhounds is all about quiet horror. You can afford to be slow and subtle in the opening arc of a Bookhounds campaign. However Night's Black Agents is a different beast, because in an espionage movie it's all about the thrills.
Those may come in different flavors. The Bourne Identity has a different style, a different feel, from Munich. For purposes of arc design that does not matter as much as you'd think; the basic principle is still the same, whether you're going for high-octane Stakes or low-fi Dust:
They don't have to encounter anything supernatural in the opening act, so long as the opening act is true to the overall mood.
The Harker Intrusion, a free RPG pdf release, is a classic example. In that scenario while there are supernatural elements the opposition is low-key, and could easily pass for normal. The only significant supernatural threat remains off-stage. If the players start digging up random coffins then yes, they will find something nasty. But that keeps the decision in the players' hands, an optional extra rather than part of the main plot.
Just bear this in mind: whatever you do, whichever scenario you opt for or design, it has to be true to the overall mood.
So what is that mood?
To a certain degree this should be discussed with the group in advance. Mirror play requires a higher degree of player buy-in than other GUMSHOE products. Mirror has the Trust and Betrayal mechanic, which allows players to support or undermine their fellow players in a way that does not happen in, say, Bookhounds or Dreamhounds. The Keeper shouldn't just impose Mirror play from the get-go and hope nobody's going to lose their temper when, in a crucial scene, Bob Betrays Mary and the whole group loses as a result.
However even without that consideration the Director should still discuss mood with the players because, in order to work out what the mood should be, the Director needs to know what thrills the players expect to encounter.
Fortunately this is made easy by the Cherries system.
If a General ability is bought with 8 points or more, that character is expert in that ability and gains special bonuses as a result. With Infiltration comes Open Sesame, Gambling comes Luck of the Devil, and so on. But what the player's really saying when she buys 8 points or more of, say, Athletics is "I want this kind of Thrilling Contest."
Thrilling Contests used to be limited to chase scenes, but as of Double Tap the mechanic covers a much wider ground. Now just about every General ability has some kind of Thrilling Contest, which makes the Director's job much simpler.
Consider: if you have four players, and between them they have Cherries in Athletics, Driving, Digital Intrusion, Disguise and Infiltration, they're signaling to you, the Director, that they want lots of thrills involving breaking and entering, sneaking and stealth, possibly with high-octane getaways after the B&E.
They're also signaling their lack of interest in gunfights and personal confrontation. They probably still have points in Hand to Hand and Shooting - really, who wouldn't - but if none of them bought Cherry level then it stands to reason they don't want Bourne-style punch-ups or Bond-style sharpshooting.
With that information you already have a decent idea of the kind of scenarios the players are interested in. Remember always that GUMSHOE is a player-facing game, but Night's Black Agents even more so.
The game says as much in the Advice to Players section. 'Think of it like you're writing an episode of an ensemble caper show like Leverage: the hitter's gotta hit, the hacker's gotta hack, the shooter's gotta shoot.' The Director needs to play to those strengths when plotting the scenario, and by extension when plotting the arc. Make sure the hitter gets a chance to hit, the hacker to hack, and the shooter to shoot.
Going back to the established setting: this is a Mutant vampire game featuring two opposing kinds of bloodsucker, squabbling over a resource they both desperately want. One group's Chinese, the other European. Already some ideas can start taking shape, probably involving smuggling and Triad crime.
Now let's look at what the players want. Assume for the sake of this example that there are four players, as follows:
Kayo, Hacker. One sentence: Former Nollywood actor and con artist shooting for the big leagues.
Basil, Black Bagger. One sentence: A former Flying Squad operative who became a little too fond of the high life.
Nick, Wire Rat. One sentence: Old hippy with a love of underground comics, and his own barge in Amsterdam.
Ly, Muscle. One sentence: Former Hanoi cop (People's Security Sergeant Major) accused of corruption and silenced because of what she knows.
Already I have a pretty good idea of the kind of scenarios these players want to see, just from their choice of archetype. I also know from discussions with the players that both Kayo and Ly have Cherries in Shooting, that Nick and Basil have Cherries in Infiltration, that Nick has a Cherry in Explosive Devices, that Ly has Cherries in Driving and Hand to Hand, and that Basil has Cherries in Disguise and Gambling.
So there's a lean towards sneaky, given the Hacker, Black Bagger and Wire Rat. Plus those three archetypes work well together, with complimentary skill sets. While the group isn't defenseless only two characters have Cherry level combat ability and only one character has Cherries in two or more combat abilities. Thus while combat scenes are possible they're not the preferred form of Antagonist Reaction. There are a few wild cards in the mix, like the Gambling and Explosive Devices Cherries, for those moments when only something unexpected will do.
Sounds as though the group's looking for high intrigue thrills rather than gunfights and punch-ups. Munich rather than Bourne, to carry on the analogy; closer to Dust or Burn than Stakes. I ought to be planning break-ins, thefts, possibly assassinations and high speed chases. I should expect the group to make heavy use of Infiltration and Basil's Disguise ability, probably combined with Kayo's Digital Intrusion. I ought to avoid too many straight combat scenes. I ought to bear in mind that, at any moment, Nick might blow up something vital to the plot.
Sounds like I have enough to start plotting the arc and first scenario in more detail. Which is exactly what I will do, next week.