Sunday, 13 August 2017

Dry As Dust (Night's Black Agents)

I was going to talk about something else, but then a question popped up on Ken & Robin's podcast about Dust mode in Night's Black Agents.

It occurred to me that I've been working on just that very thing for a writing project I'd like to see come to fruition, so with that in mind:

Dust Mode

[REDACTED] is written with Dust mode in mind.
Dust tends to be less cinematic than the standard setting. Characters are still badass, but they’re not Jason Bourne badass. Death is an ever-present reminder that mistakes may be forgivable but are also fatal. The vampires and their human allies tend to be much more challenging in open combat.
Dust tends to work well with Mirror mode, that shifting morass of ever-changing loyalties which makes heavy use of the Trust and Betrayal mechanics described on pages 40-41 of the main book.
The following rules modifications are required for [REDACTED's] Dust mode:
·         Remove the MOS rules.
·         Remove Cherry benefits that result in automatic success.
·         Keep Cherry benefits that do not imply automatic success, eg Medical School of Hard Knocks with its bonus point in Diagnosis.
·         Cap Health at 10.
·         Keep the Thriller Combat rules.
·         Use the Guns Kill rules given on page 63 of the main book.
The Thriller Combat rules make combats more interesting, as do Cherries like Martial Arts. Equally the Athletics Cherry gives access to Parkour, which allows for better chase scenes.
The point being that simply having access to those rules does not imply automatic success; just because a character is experienced in Parkour doesn’t mean she won’t screw up the vault.
However the MOS rules and Cherries like Infiltration’s Open Sesame do allow automatic success, and therefore should not be used if the Director intends to play this setting in Dust mode.
There are some grey area Cherries, and the Director should make a judgement call as to whether to use them. Gambling’s Luck of the Devil Cherry, for example, allows the player to make a dice roll at the beginning of the session and decide when to use it. Technically this could allow an automatic success, or an automatic failure.
The Director must decide whether this benefit is applicable in Dust mode. In my Dust games I allow it, on the basis that the Cherry does not necessarily result in automatic success or failure; the Difficulty of the test still needs to be taken into account.  
If Mirror mode is to be used then players assign Trust as usual.
It sometimes happens in Mirror games that the Betrayer reveals that they’ve been working for ‘the other side’ all along, where the other side is often an intelligence agency. In the example in the main book, Beatrice tells her companions Jack and Luc that she’s been working for the DGSE, the French external intelligence agency, all along.
In this setting, it’s also possible that the Betrayer is working for one of the players in this high-stakes game, like [YOU BETTER BELIEVE THAT'S REDACTED]. The Director should consider carefully whether to allow this; it may be that aligning with one of the in-game agencies allows the player greater access to in-game secrets.
That said, it’s perfectly in keeping with Mirror mode to have a character announce she’s been bought off by one of the in-game agencies. If the Director wishes to allow it, by all means do so.

Why, Bob? Why?
Ultimately the point behind Dust mode is that it's gritty, more realistic, potentially more fatal. In Anthony Price's novels combat is rare, but when it happens somebody dies. In Price's war novels, like Hour of the Donkey, there's death by the bucketload; an entire unit is wiped out in the first few pages of Donkey. 
So the Thriller Combat rules have their uses. True, they add cinema, but they also increase the stakes, particularly if the Guns Kill rules are used. Plus, the players love Thriller Combat, possibly because it gives them the illusion of control. Never take away anything the players love. It's much better to destroy the things they love, preferably with as much drama and fanfare as possible. Try to arrange a brass band, possibly a few elephants. Elephants add class to every occasion.
That said, the MOS rules can be a problem because they allow the players to eliminate serious threats without rolling dice or spending points. One automatic success later, and the encounter that the Director thought would be challenging is reduced to a brief cameo moment, starring 'pink brain mist' in tonight's climactic scene. For much the same reason, Cherries that give automatic success are also difficult to deal with. Preparedness can be particularly annoying, but there are plenty of others.
Players become more concerned if they know they have to spend points to guarantee success, because their points pools are finite. Sure, at the beginning of the session they have pools for days, and can take on any foe, but they know and you know that, at the midway point, things change. The center cannot hold
To quote LBJ - or possibly John Wayne or Teddy Roosevelt - if you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. 
Inject anxiety into the equation. Make the players question whether they can hold out long enough. Once they start thinking they might not have enough oomph for yet another gunfight, they'll do their best to avoid another gunfight.

Finally, a word about the Guns Kill rules.

It's one thing to see those rules in print, something else again when the first player drops from, say, 5 Health to -6 in a single shot. The first time something like that happens, prepare for falling jaws to splinter floorboards. Assume Health 10, and two shooters, both of whom hit the target. On an average roll of 4+, the target is in serious trouble. If the total is much more than that - if one rolls 4, the other 6, say, or 2 5s - then the target is already on -6 Health, possibly in the first round of combat.

If that doesn't cause the players to rethink their John Woo ways, nothing will.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Facility (RPG Any. GUMSHOE)

The agents gather their forces and prepare to strike. The opposition won't know what hit them - or at least, that's the idea. But what are the agents assaulting, and how difficult will their task be?

Any organized group, whatever its objective, has assets of one kind or another. Often these assets are brick-and-mortar buildings, facilities whose efforts assist the group's goals. For the purpose of this discussion I'm going to use Esoterrorists as an example, but the concepts discussed here could apply across the board. It doesn't matter whether Vampires or Cultists are behind the latest threat to humanity; certain characteristics are shared.

The purpose of this segment is to give you, the Keeper/Director, some basic vocabulary to describe these facilities to the players. This will be particularly useful if you have to do this on the fly, without much prior preparation. This will most often happen in an improvisational game, in which the characters are likely to go off-script in search of adventure.

So what are these facilities?

  • Manufacture,
  • Collect,
  • Distribute, or
  • Analyze.
A manufacturing facility makes something, a collection facility stores it, a distribution hub delivers it, and an analyzing facility investigates.

So to take an Esoterror cell devoted to weakening the membrane by any means necessary, that group has means by which it collects material to further its cause, makes that material, distributes it, or tries to find new ways to make, distribute or collect it. For purposes of this example it doesn't really matter what that material is - it's a pure McGuffin.

What do all these facilities have in common? They need:
  • Security, and,
  • Monitoring.
Someone has to keep the facility maintained and safe from prying eyes. This may mean a simple padlock on an important door, or a full-fledged electronic surveillance system. Also, someone has to monitor what's going on, whether the facility is doing as it should.

For purposes of gamification, the Security and Monitoring aspects of any facility ought to be given a basic rating, Low, Medium, or High. This determines the Difficulty of any given test against or within the facility.

So for example: this Collection facility has Low Security and Low Monitoring. It isn't very important to the grand design, or the cell doesn't have the resources to look after this and its other facilities too. This implies that any attempt to Infiltrate the facility, use Digital Intrusion to crack its online database, or really to attempt any test, is, at most, 3, assuming the Gumshoe default of Difficulty 4 for all tests.  

This implies that the Collection facility has only the most basic of security. Maybe there's a guard at the door, or a few badly placed, cheapo cameras. It also implies that the characters may be able to infiltrate the facility without being seen, and if they leave without blowing the place up or burning it down, their actions may not be noticed by the cell for some time, if ever. 

Thus Low = Difficulty 3, Medium = Difficulty 4, and High = Difficulty 5.

This doesn't just affect Difficulty. In Gumshoe, it also affects Investigative ability spends. A Low Security, Medium Monitoring facility implies:
  • 0 point clues for anything involving Security, say Electronic Surveillance, and
  • 1 point clues for anything involving Monitoring, say, Bureaucracy.  
The point being that a Low Security environment, say, is lax in all areas. The security cameras aren't properly positioned, the guards are rent-a-cops, the fences have holes in them. This isn't the time to make the agents spend points on Military Science to work out guard patterns. Whereas a Medium Monitoring environment has some functioning safeguards, so it shouldn't be a walk in the park when your forensic Accountant goes through its books.

High Security or Monitoring, on the other hand, implies extraordinary safeguards. That in turn suggests that more than one point, or perhaps a combination of points from different abilities, are needed.

It's unreasonable to assume that there's a wide spread between Security and Monitoring. A High Monitoring facility would never have Low Security. Nobody in their right mind puts the most important thing they own in a cardboard box by the side of the road. So a High Monitoring facility will have at least Medium Security. Similarly a Low Security facility is only ever going to have Medium Monitoring, and so on.

If you extend the gamification to transport between facilities, then there's an argument for saying there can be a wide spread between Security and Monitoring, for a very brief period while the McGuffins are in transport. However even then a wide spread isn't really likely. You don't see banks transporting cash in a tuk-tuk

OK, all that's the bare bones approach. So what happens when you want to go into more detail?

First, take a moment to think about what it is you're trying to describe. Security and Monitoring are common factors, granted. However there are other factors unique to the kind of facility you're designing. For example:

A Collection facility gathers McGuffins. What does it need?

It needs:
  • Space, in which to safely store the McGuffins.
  • Materials that are important to the McGuffins.
  • Transport for the McGuffins.
Let's say the McGuffins are delicate, and need to be in a temperature controlled environment. This may be the case if the McGuffins are antiques, or bacteria, or high-end computer equipment. Then the facility needs Materials, equipment to maintain temperature, power for that equipment, and probably some kind of electronic monitoring system to ensure the equipment doesn't fail, or, if it does, that the appropriate monitoring body is immediately alerted.

This in turn suggests significant investment - some kind of HVAC, distribution vents, means to control waste runoff from the equipment, some kind of monitoring station either automated or with human personnel. This only gets more important if the facility is somewhere that complicates that process - if, say, this temperature controlled environment has to exist within a tropical biosphere.

Say that the Esoterror cell is operating a facility similar to InGen's Jurassic Park in Isla Nublar, Costa Rica. That environment is fairly harsh: hot, humid, probably lots of salt in the atmosphere since it's an island, subject to intense storms. It's reasonable to assume that any complex technical facility in that environment wages a constant battle against corrosion, and that providing even basic aircon is more difficult there than it would be, say, in Texas.

However it couldn't exist at all if it wasn't close to Costa Rica. Politically stable, with a democratic government since 1948, and economically developed, it permits the transport network a would-be InGen needs to move all the construction equipment, scientific McGuffins and other things required to create the facility in the first place.

Equally, satisfying those needs may give the agents clues as to the facility's purpose and importance. In Greg Rucka's Queen and Country, when the agency needs to work out whether or not a particular building, out in the middle of nowhere, is or is not a chemical weapons plant, the two things that give it away, from satellite imagery alone, are an abundance of guards, and high waste heat from the machinery it uses to produce its McGuffins. Satisfying needs meant that the facility gave its true nature away. 

A Distribution facility's needs are similar, but not the same. It needs:
  • Space,
  • Materials, and
  • Transport.
But its need hierarchy is different.

If you were to map out a Collection facility's needs, its priority list would be Materials, then Space, then Transport. It absolutely needs to keep the McGuffins safe and viable, so it absolutely needs Materials. It needs Space, but that isn't as important as Materials, since it's reasonable to presume the McGuffins aren't staying forever. Finally, it needs transport links, but that isn't as important to it as the other two needs in the hierarchy.

So a Collection facility could be: out in an allegedly abandoned military base or missile silo. In a warehouse on the outskirts of a small town. In an old freighter anchored offshore. All these places are relatively remote and low-key, but they satisfy the need hierarchy. They offer Materials first and foremost, then Space, then Transport.

Whereas a Distribution facility's need hierarchy is: Transport, Materials, Space. Its purpose is to distribute, so it absolutely needs transport links to help it distribute. It needs to keep the McGuffins safe and viable for the limited time the McGuffins are within its care, so it needs Materials. It doesn't need Space as much as it needs the other two things, since the McGuffins aren't staying very long.

So a Distribution facility could be: a warehouse in a suburb near a major city. Container yards at or near a major port. Slaughterhouses on or near an important railway hub. A hotel at or near an airport. All these places are near the one thing it needs most, but in turn it means that the facility isn't as low-key. It needs some kind of profile, if only to blend in with everything else around it. Abandoned, decaying, marked with hazard warning signs - these are things you don't associate with important transport links. If it's a hotel right next to JFK airport in New York, it probably doesn't look like the hotel from Psycho

You can assign a needs hierarchy to all the facility types. Manufacturing needs Space, Materials, Transport. An Analyzing facility needs Transport, Space, Materials. With this needs hierarchy comes the first indication of what a facility is actually like, which in turn helps you design it quickly.

All that said, let's consider an Esoterror Manufacturing facility. Let's also presume that this facility is important but not vital to the cell, so it has Medium Security and Monitoring.

Say for the sake of plot that this particular facility is involved in food production, that it makes chicken nuggets which are infected with a biological agent that, in a percentage of the population, results in a disease which causes brain death. This allows the newly dead brains to be taken over by an Outer Dark entity.

It's manufacturing, so it needs Space, Materials, Transport. Space in this instance implies a lot of space - after all, there are a lot of chickens - and given the nature of the facility there's a lot of waste disposal too, and equipment for processing - the Materials part of the equation. There will be some kind of loading bay or shipping point - the Transport. There's also a small amount of the McGuffin on site. There would be more if this was a High Monitoring or Security site, but we've already decided this is Medium.

When the McGuffins are transported out of the facility, Security drops by one level, from Medium to Low. This in turn suggests that if the agents choose to hit the transport rather than the facility, their odds of success improve.

Assuming there's anything here that might provoke a Stability or Sanity loss, then that loss is probably not enough to drive anyone crazy, but enough to be a concern. Minor, not major; if it were major, the facility would be more important to the cell, and have High levels of Security, Monitoring, or both.

Medium Security implies plenty of locked doors, some kind of electronic alarm system, maybe a minor Outer Dark entity on site depending on how pulp you intend to play it. Medium Monitoring implies that if something happens to the facility the cell will respond reasonably quickly. Within a day if that something is overt, like explosives or a fire, within a week if it's just a break-in.  It also implies that there are resources on site that the agents might want to look at - filing cabinets, computer databases, midlevel management to interrogate. Difficulty for all tests within the facility is 4. Investigative Ability spends are at least 1 point.

Already you have a fairly clear picture of the facility, and thus what the agents can hope to get from the facility. You also know, for gamification purposes, the Difficulty for all tests, and the point spend. Those are the most important things you'll need to know before running any scene within the facility. 

Of course, you'll want to go into more detail for truly important, campaign-relevant facilities. This is just for those emergency moments, when the need arises and you haven't anything planned. Take a breath, consider your options, and ...