Sunday, 29 July 2018

Money Heist - Flashbacks (Night's Black Agents)

I've been on a Spanish kick recently after watching the brilliant series Ministry of Time. One of the shows I've been watching is a heist series I recommend to anyone interested in Night's Black Agents: Money Heist, aka La Casa de Papel.

La Casa tells the story of a gang of clever and sophisticated thieves who engineer a takeover of the Royal Mint of Spain, planning to print millions upon millions of Euro and walk out scot free after a 12 day siege. It's gorgeously shot and intricately plotted, with slick twists and turns to astound the viewer. I'm on season 1 episode 10 at time of writing; every episode I've watched these characters pull off moments of sheer genius, none of which I'm going to share with you because it would be a shame to spoil.

This is a must-watch for Night's Black Agents players and directors. Not just for its clever ideas, but because it demonstrates effective use of investigative and general abilities in ways that you haven't thought of. You can go through an episode and say for each moment in a scene, Disguise, Infiltration, Flirting, Cop Talk, Bureaucracy, High Society - and on and on. Dust gamers should take particular note; this is as Dusty as an eight mile stretch of bad road.

It's also a Lewton's Bus master class, except without the supernatural element. The number of times I've watched this thing spike the tension, SPIKE the tension, SPIKE THE TENSION and then release … and you, the viewer, know it could easily have gone a different way, but here we are now.

However I do want to talk about a mechanic that Money Heist uses at least once per episode: the Flashback.

It works like this: a problem or situation arises unexpectedly. The viewer can't see a way out, or a way forward. Then there is a switch to a previous moment, almost always kicked off by narration from Tokyo, the audience viewpoint character and one of the most significant members of the heist crew. The events that take place in that flashback show how or why the present situation isn't what the viewer thought; that what looked like a crisis is an opportunity, or what seemed victory is defeat.

Night's Black Agents often suggests using flashbacks in-game, but doesn't go much further than 'narrate a brief flashback sequence.' Money Heist goes one further, and I think it can be co-opted into NBA using the Achievements mechanic in Double Tap.

Double Tap proposes a simple mechanic for General Ability refreshes in the middle of a scene. Engineer an Achievement moment - say, by running through a working kitchen during a chase or shootout scene, thus winning the Chef de Partie achievement - and you get a 3 point refresh of whichever General Ability seems most appropriate. The point being that the agent has to create the moment, has to find that kitchen and run through it. If there's no reasonable way of creating the moment, say if it's well after closing time and no kitchens are open, then the achievement cannot be won.

I propose something like this:

La Casa de Papel: Invoke and play through a flashback moment that has direct relevance to the situation you are currently in. This may involve other agents, or opposition forces. Gain a 3-point refresh, and pay for that refresh by gaining 2 points Heat, or by losing 2 points Stability, or by imposing a story problem on another agent that the other agent has to solve. Whichever payment method is used, it must flow directly from the events of the flashback - so, eg, the Heat gain comes from something that happened in the flashback.

In Money Heist a flashback always raises the stakes in some way. It's often used to, in game terms, pay for a Preparedness refresh so the characters can accomplish some cool thing that the viewer didn't think the characters would pull off. However there are always story consequences, and La Casa is very much a Dust game, with all the Trust and lack of same that implies. There are inevitably serious consequences every time Tokyo calls for a flashback, and the only question is who suffers. It might be Berlin, or the Professor, Helsinki, Nairobi, one of the hostages, one of the cops, but someone gets burnt.

That's why each time you call for this achievement, you have to pay for it with some kind of penalty. Heat affects the entire team. Stability losses affect the agent in a way that make future tests more difficult. Imposing a story problem harms a team member, whose contributions may be vital to future success or failure.

Say one of the team suffers from an addiction and is hiding it from the group. The story problem might threaten to reveal that addiction, or to remove the substance the addicted agent needs, or lets the opposition know the agent is addicted to [whatever] which in turn allows them to manipulate the addicted agent. Or something else, but whatever it is the story complication ought to be serious. It can't be something the targeted agent can overcome easily. It might even require them to spend pool points of their own - Infiltration, Disguise, Athletics, something else - to engineer a solution. Which means it works great in a Dust game, but it would still work whether your game's Dusty or not.

For that reason this works best as an Achievement. Thrilling Narration can be used by anyone at any time; two agents with the Shooting cherry can both use narration to refresh points. However Achievements can be gained once and once only, so there's a definite benefit to invoking La Casa before anyone else does. Sure it screws everyone else, but at least you're okay - you got your refresh, and now there's no risk someone's going to screw you by calling for their own La Casa and imposing a story penalty on you. Of course, if they can think of a different way to screw you ...

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

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