Sunday, 26 February 2017

Hitchcock & You (GUMSHOE, various)

As a film nut I often seek out interesting movie houses, film festivals and big screen entertainment, all the more because I don't get much chance to do so down here. I thought this time out I'd examine some classic cinema, and to give this a gaming twist I'd see which of these films is best suited to a Director/Keeper.

I'm going to concentrate on the films of British genius Alfred Hitchcock, whose big screen career stretches from the early days of silent film up to the 1970s. I may dwell on some of his slightly more obscure works, since I figure you've probably already seen Psycho at least once. I'm not going to consider films in which he wasn't the director, and if you're hoping I've somehow found one of his lost films, sorry, but no. I'm not that lucky.

Without further ado:

Sabotage (aka The Woman Alone). This 1936 drama stars Oskar Homolka as saboteur Karl Anton Verloc, Sylvia Sidney as his wife, John Loder as heroic detective Sergeant Ted Spencer, and child actor Desmond Tester as young Stevie. Karl is an agent for hire who agrees to carry out acts of sabotage in London. We first see him tampering with a power station, temporarily knocking it out. He's expecting a big reward for this but is disappointed to learn his bosses aren't best pleased, as his stunt did nothing except make London laugh when they wanted London terrified. This leads them to demand greater things of Verloc, and they supply him with a bomb which Verloc is supposed to plant at a train station. However Verloc gets nervous and, thinking he'll be suspected, he gives the disguised bomb to young Stevie to deliver instead. This kicks off one of the most suspenseful scenes in British cinema as Stevie, all unknowing, tries to get to his destination in time. We watch him get lost, get delayed, and all the while are screaming inside because at any moment the bomb could go off.
  • Bookhounds Keepers need to see this film for its accurate and fascinating portrayal of London in the 1930s, particularly the street scenes.
  • As an espionage thriller it's remarkable for three things: 
    • Its portrayal of its antiheroes as misanthropic, greedy men, which is a more accurate depiction of actual traitors and spies than usually seen on film.
    • Its portrayal of hero Ted Spencer, as a reminder of how we used to imagine the heroes of this kind of thriller. An archetype soon to be replaced by the likes of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer, Spencer is more a Bulldog Drummond type, but unlike the stock hero he abandons his principles pretty quickly when Mrs Verloc, the woman he loves, is in danger.
    • The bomb-maker, who has to be seen to be believed. 
The Lady Vanishes. This 1938 tale sees Margaret Lockwood as carefree dilettante Iris Henderson thrust headfirst into mystery and death aboard a luxury train that might as well be the Orient Express. She's travelling across Europe back to England so she can marry a blue-blooded idiot, but falls in with octogenarian Miss Froy, a charming old lady who vanishes mysteriously. Iris' attempts to find out what happened to her are frustrated when all her fellow passengers say they've never heard of or seen Miss Froy, and Iris is accused of making the whole thing up. Knife-wielding magicians and sinister bandaged men follow in quick succession, as Iris dodges assassins and soldiers in her search for the truth.
  • If you've ever wanted to run Horror on the Orient Express, this is the movie for you.
  • The first appearance of comedy stock British characters Charters and Caldicott, who appear in several other films including wartime espionage drama Night Train to Munich. A master-class in how to make supporting characters memorable.
Saboteur. A wartime drama which kicks off with the immolation of a bomber factory, and one of the most cold-blooded cinematic killings of all time. As the factory goes up in flames, two would-be heroes rush to the rescue. The villain passes one of them a fire extinguisher, which is immediately grabbed by his friend who rushes in to fight the blaze. Unfortunately for him the extinguisher's actually full of gasoline, and he dies in a ball of flame. Admittedly as an assassination it's a bit cheesy - how did the villain know to have a trick fire extinguisher on hand at that exact moment? - but as a piece of cinema it's undeniably effective. Which is emblematic of the movie as a whole; because it's filmed in 1942 when everyone's at their patriotic height - filming started two weeks after Pearl Harbor - there are any number of Truly Heroic Moments And Brave Speeches, but that doesn't prevent this being a brilliant film. The climax alone, atop the Statue of Liberty, is worth the price of admission. 
  • If Lady Vanishes is a master-class in making supporting characters memorable, this is a master-class in villainy. One character in particular, whose name I shan't mention as it might spoil his entrance - one of the best introductions of a major character I've ever seen - is superb. Charming, persuasive, and utterly ruthless, his defense of totalitarianism is chilling. Moreover for a wartime film about sabotage there isn't a racist Japanese or German stereotype in it, which is remarkable in and of itself.
    • As luck would have it I'm reading Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil, and thought this was worth repeating: 'The real horror of Himmler is not that he was unusual or unique but that he was in many ways quite ordinary, and that he could have lived out his life as a chicken farmer, a good neighbor with perhaps some antiquated ideas about people.'
  • Hitchcock's known for gorgeous set-pieces, but that moment atop Lady Liberty is undoubtedly one of his best. Better, I'd say, than a very similar moment in North By Northwest, though the latter film is more well known.
Torn Curtain. Paul Newman plays nuclear scientist Professor Armstrong in this 1966 drama, who plans to defect to the Soviets so he can continue research into an anti-ballistic missile defense system. Julie Andrews is his fiancĂ©, who has no idea he's about to defect until the scheme is well under way. When she discovers his plans she follows him to East Berlin, and has to decide whether she'll stay with him or return to the West. Except Armstrong's got a hidden agenda ... Cue a race to East Berlin with the police and security apparatus hot on their trail.  This isn't one of Hitchcock's best loved spy movies but it has a lot of charm, not least because it hews faithfully to reality as opposed to overblown espionage tropes. Hitchcock took inspiration from the Burgess & Maclean defections when he made this one, especially the fate of Maclean's wife who went behind the Iron Curtain with their three children a year after her husband defected.
  • Night's Black Agents Directors wondering what Dust mode looks like on film need look no further. One scene in particular, the murder of a security man, epitomizes the whole gruesome, exhausting business.
  • Ever wonder what it's like to create Thrilling Contest scenes that aren't car chases or acrobatic parkour leaps from rooftop to rooftop? See how you can have a theoretical physics Thrilling Contest, or a cat-and-mouse with two buses.
  • The race to the border is the very essence of an extended Heat contest, right up to the final moment when someone machine guns the plot.
  • Much like The Lady Vanishes the supporting characters are memorable and interesting in their own right. My hat's off to unnamed tetchy ballerina played by actual ballerina Tamara Toumanova; now there's someone you have to feel a little sorry for!
Topaz. On the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a French intelligence operative is asked by an American contact to investigate potential NATO leaks within the French government. In doing so he runs foul of Topaz, a French spy ring that's been funneling NATO military secrets to Moscow. He has to use every trick in the book in his search for the truth, and even then it might not be enough, as his shadowy opposite number Columbine, head of Topaz, is so well connected that not even the strongest evidence may be enough to get him arrested, never mind convicted. Frederick Stafford, a spy film veteran, plays the heroic French lead Andre Deveraux, and at the time critics blamed his performance for the film's poor box office. Having seen the film I don't agree; his performance wasn't stellar, but he's unfairly blamed. No, to my mind the larger problem is that an audience used to Bond level heroics can't get behind a spymaster who actually behaves like a spymaster - that is, he gets other people to do all the dirty work. So the action scenes and heroics belong to other actors, and Stafford shows up only when the big scenes are over and done. Even at the end - and there are several possible endings depending on which version of the end you watch - he isn't directly involved. All the big moments belong to other actors.
  • Night's Black Agents directors and players both need to watch this, to get a better understanding of Network. Deveraux is a master of this very important Ability; his agents and catspaws can be found all over the world, even in Castro's Cuba. It's thanks to them that he succeeds, and by that I mean it's often thanks to their shattered corpses, as it's a hard life being a Network contact. Deveraux's own Network pool is so exhausted that, by the end, he's recruiting family members, leading to a tense moment when one of them goes missing, presumed murdered.
    • If yours is a Dust game, this could be a useful way of keeping Agents alive. After all someone's got to risk themselves, and many players would rather it wasn't their character. However it does mean that the big action scenes end up going to Network contacts rather than the characters themselves; the Director may wish to impose Stability penalties, or let players play Network characters for that all-important moment when the enemy spy is bearded in his den, just before the vampire counterspies turn up and make steak tartare out of everyone.
    • In fact let me propose a device I'll call The Topaz Maneuver: If an Agent wants to create a Network contact but has no Network to spend, the Agent can spend Stability instead, provided that the Stability spend is permanent, just as Network spends are permanent. There is no refresh for Stability spent in this way; like Network, this lost Stability can only be bought back with experience spends.
  • It's also useful for a look at how Solaces can work. In this case Deveraux's Solace is his wife Nicole, who leaves him halfway through the film when he goes to Cuba to commune with his agent and mistress, Juanita de Cordoba. Here we have a legitimately frayed Solace relationship, and see one potential consequence - in this case that she may or may not go over to the enemy, wittingly or otherwise.  
That's it for this week! Enjoy.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ripped from the Headlines (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Just a quick one this week to highlight a few newspaper articles that intrigued me, and may prove useful to Night's Black Agents Directors.

First the inspired and somewhat quixotic theft of two million quid's worth of books. I really hope the thieves aren't going to cut the things apart for their illustrations. That would be a tragedy,  but as a heist it has all the hallmarks of greatness. Whoever carried it out knew the target's security measures and knew exactly what to steal; that takes planning as well as flair. Plus there's a decent chance this was a theft to order, and that sort of thing is meat & drink to a Night's Black Agents Director. A group of thieves and ne'er-do-wells are gathered by some shadowy well-heeled sociopath to steal a small fortune in unsellable manuscripts? You couldn't ask for a better start to the campaign.

Next, a Dracula Dossier connection: The Harker Scene-Painting Studio is about to be turned into flats. Bram Stoker, when he worked at the Lyceum, became great friends with Joseph Harker, a scene painter and theatrical chandler, hence Jonathon Harker the Dracula character. Harker's studio survived until the 1980s when it was bought by Flint's, another theatrical chandler which still manufactures the signature color Harker's Red. Now the Grade II listed building is to be sold off, and several of Harker's descendants visited the studio to find Joseph's scrawled name, along with those of several of his family who went into the family trade, carefully preserved on the studio wall.

As a Director you could do many things with this information. To begin with it adds a hidden layer of depth to Billie Harker, Lucy Blythe and J.Q. Harker if they happen to be part of this grand theatrical tradition. Billie in particular could do with a switch from law student to RADA grad, perhaps working as showrunner or scriptwriter for a BBC epic about horror movies. Perhaps Lucy Blythe's name is up on that wall with all the other Harkers, or maybe J.Q. wanted to make a switch from a military career to an artistic one only to be badgered into submission by his domineering father.

As a location it has all kinds of benefits. A Grade II listed building that's seen out Dracula, the original vampire hunters and all their progeny, preserving the history of the generations? Was some secret hid in those brick walls, or stored for safekeeping under the floorboards?

Even as a Cool site the grand backdrops on their massive frames loom overhead like memories blustering in an empty head, and the weight of history hangs heavy on visitors. Some of the names on the wall are recognizable as Edom cut-outs or friendlies. Is that peculiar stain all that's left of a pool of blood spilt decades ago, or an old Harker's Red accident? If anything's still here, it's at best a minor artefact, or even a fake; or perhaps the Conspiracy hid a red herring here for foolish spies to follow straight into a trap.

As a Warm site it's probably used as an Edom safehouse-cum-meeting place, nice and anonymous. People come and go all the time, and nobody remarks on it if a stranger arrives here to never be seen again. That unmarked white van isn't at all suspicious, not when dozens like it are here every week. Perhaps Edom keeps the studio active out of some sense of family history, or because Billie agreed to become an Edom asset only if it helped keep the business alive. Maybe there's a temporary holding cell somewhere in the basement for Renfields captured in the course of an operation, somewhere safe, secure and anonymous for short-term stays before being moved on to better accommodation elsewhere. Probably last used in the 1970s, but even so if those walls could talk ... It's also a great hiding place for old artefacts, like the 1890's Cryptic Lockbox, or Aytown's Photographic Studies. Perhaps Harker's cameo is hanging, long forgotten, not far from the framed section of the wall protecting all the family signatures.

Last up is the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The 45-year-old exile and gadabout was apparently sprayed in the face by an aerosol poison, while walking through an airport shopping concourse. The alleged assailants, two women, say they thought they were taking part in a comedy reality show. Their brief was to convince businessmen to close their eyes, at which point the two would spray them in the face with water. Except in Kim Jong-nam's case it wasn't just tap water, and he died shortly afterwards.

Let's say the women's story is accurate on its face. If so, kudos to their shadowy employers for coming up with a scheme that Bugs Bunny would have been proud of. This is the kind of lateral thinking I'd expect to see at the gaming table, but never in real life.

Also, it can be an instructive and frightening few minutes to research potential bioterroism agents that can be deployed via aerosol. "There is no vaccine or prophylactic immunotherapy available for human use." Oh goody. That'll help me sleep at night.

But from a Director's POV it does open up some interesting possibilities. Can Vampires deploy a spray agent to create Renfields? Or even just make a target more vulnerable to special abilities like Cloud Men's Minds or Mental Attack? Even a bog-standard hallucinogenic would be a reasonable attack agent, something to incapacitate without leaving significant traces for CSI to follow up later.

Of course, you'd have to come up with a scheme that allowed you the perfect shot. Simply breaking into someone's hotel room armed with a spray canister probably isn't going to get you what you want. Clocking someone in the face with a spritz of perfume would do it, especially in a crowded place where such an action might go without comment. A similar moment provided an inciting incident for a West Wing episode, in which POTUS secretary Debbie Fiderer thought she'd been spritzed by a couple sitting next to her at a public event.

"I thought they were guests of Leno's, but it turned out they weren't," Debbie says. "While they finished with the party ahead of us, I didn't even see the woman get in her bag and sffh! She spritzed right into my face." "You say this aerosol got on you?" the military doctor asks. Without waiting for a response, the doctor immediately shuts everything down and calls for a full decontamination process. And that's how you immobilize the White House for the evening. It's the sort of thing that might happen anywhere; in a restaurant, at a gala event, on the subway. Totally innocuous, totally deniable, and the ones who make the attack - if it is an attack - vanish into the crowd like ghosts.

Or you could go whole hog and spray an entire room or building with the stuff, like a Batman villain with zero restraint and a flair for the dramatic. But this only works if you don't mind the media fallout that will inevitably follow.

From a rules perspective, aerosol toxins are thoroughly covered in the main book, p78-9. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say whatever was used to dose Kim Jong-nam was a +6 damage aerosol attack agent. Almost all [toxins] will reliably kill or incapacitate all but the most dramatically robust of NPCs - human NPCs, that is, says Ken Hite. Too true, says Kim Jong-un.

Edit 21st Feb: I see the Malaysian Police are now saying that the women did know what was going on, and that there's been an attempted break-in at the morgue to steal the body. This is a story that just won't quit. In fact if someone in  Hollywood isn't already working on a comedy film treatment, they really should.

That's it for now! See you next week.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style 3: Initial Arc & Pyramid (Night's Black Agents)

We've talked about power and goals as well as things the Keeper needs to know before plotting the campaign. Now we're at the point where we can start talking about the first arc and the Conspyramid that the characters will spend their - probably short - lives trying to dismantle. What happens next?

Going back to core principles, we need the opening act to be true to the overall mood. Now we know what that mood is: a slightly downbeat, gritty style of play in which the characters will be engaged in lots of infiltration, hacking, possibly assassination, probably theft, high-speed chases and a relatively small amount of combat.

Munich's a good example of this kind of film, as is Forsythe's Day of the Jackal or The Boys from Brazil. In fact Boys may be a better example than most, since despite its sci-fi conceit the plot ultimately revolves around a series of assassinations, with the protagonist having to work out why all this killing's necessary.

The next question that's going to be on the Director's mind is, how detailed does the Conspyramid need to be at this stage? After all, designing the vampire conspiracy is a large part of the central conceit of the campaign. Surely the Director needs to know what the conspiracy has at its disposal?

Well, yes and no. The Director needs to know who or what is at the top of the pyramid, giving all the orders. The Director also needs to know, in detail, what the agents will initially be dealing with. In order for this to happen the Director needs to have a firm idea of what's at the entry-level Conspyramid point, whichever point that happens to be.

To give an example: if the Director intends that the agents will first encounter a power at the Provincial level (3 on the Pyramid scale) then the Director needs to fully flesh out that power. What the Director does not necessarily need to do is fully flesh out the levels below that power or above it.

It would be handy to have a basic idea what those powers are, of course. The Director doesn't want to be in the unenviable position of handwaving everything and then furiously writing backstory between sessions.

But there is a degree of player freedom in Nights that we don't see in, say, Bookhounds. The agents are encouraged to take responsibility for their own thrills, remember. Be bold and seize the initiative say the Bucharest Rules in the main book.  Pick the most awesome alternative say the Cartagena Rules in Double Tap. Keep moving forward. Hack the exposition. Do something unexpected. Repeated again and again, like a mantra, is the tag line thrills are everybody's business.

In improv this is the 'yes, and' principle. Not rule; in improv there are no rules. The point being that when an actor in a scene throws out a potential line of action - 'how could you sleep with my wife!' - the response should never be 'but I didn't do that!' It should always accept the premise and work with it. 'I couldn't help it, I was drunk,' or 'I've loved her for years, it was a moment of weakness,' or even 'she loves it when I put on the clown costume' are acceptable responses. No never is.

So in a given scene if the agents fall foul of, say, the cops in Dubai and one of the agents suspects vampire involvement, that's not a moment the Director wants to squash. Instead that's the time to get the Renfielded Police Special Unit involved. Which creates a new Node that you will have to work into the pyramid somehow, or adds a layer of complication to an existing Node that you will have to integrate into the ongoing plot.

For that reason while the Director ought to have a basic idea of the pyramid structure it's always handy to leave a few connections vague, or even blank. Then you can fit things into the plot as and when required.

Incidentally if your response as Director is 'but that seems implausible; surely I need to know everything before the game starts,' I pose this question: just how plausible is the Bourne series, really? There are fifteen novels so far, only three of which were written by Ludlum, and that's before you consider the films. If you were to try to untangle that unholy mess you'd go stark staring mad

If plausibility was a benchmark nobody'd write spy fiction ever again. This is one of the main differences between spy fiction and mystery fiction: where in a whodunit the readers always want there to be a good solution to the puzzle, and get bent out of shape if you fudge things with the detective's unaccountable intuition or mysterious twins that weren't mentioned until the final chapter, in spy fiction you can get away with the implausible so long as it looks good on paper.

Bond himself has stolen pirate gold from a Caribbean dictator and crime lord, and foiled a raid on Fort Knox orchestrated by every single American crime syndicate plus veterans of the Red Ball Express, in the novels. In the movies he's done everything from space travel to kinky sex in a submarine. Does any of this sound plausible to you?   

So to go back to last week, we have four agents looking for an insert point. The insert point is a Node on the Pyramid. I'm not going to go over old ground, as I've discussed Nodes before. For a brief recap, all you need to remember is:

[a] Node should be treated no differently from a Villain, for the purposes of campaign design. A Node should have power to affect the plot. A Node has things it wants, things it's in charge of, things it's prepared to kill for. A Node has personality, and it's up to the Director what that personality ought to be.

I'm going to opt for a Level 3 Node insertion point, and use Bankhaus Klingemann, of Bonn, as the Node in question. I'm going to use Paris as a backdrop and plan for most of the initial action taking place there. Conspiracy asset Albert Ahrens controls the Paris branch of the Bankhaus, and we'll say for the sake of this discussion that I've designed the Paris branch thoroughly, including potential Antagonist Reactions and set-pieces. I already know that I have a hacker, two infiltration experts and a Wire Rat in the team, so I've given thought as to the potential Thrilling Scenes involving hacking, infiltration and probable reaction to those actions, from the authorities as well as the Conspiracy.

I'll say that the main scenes take place at a development conference, patterned after the dotSecurity conference. One of the attendees is Eric Klingemann, Lisle's family rival. I already know that Lisle wants to ease Eric out of the family business, because Eric has blackmail material on her. I also know, thanks to the overarching meta-plot, that there's a rivalry between the Conspiracy that Lisle sold her soul to, the European Mutant Vampires, and their Chinese rivals.

So here's the basic bones:

Lisle hires the agents, through a cut-out, to infiltrate the conference and steal vital data from her brother's heavily encrypted and protected personal computer. She knows that her bosses wouldn't approve of her taking out Eric because that draws too much attention to Bankhaus Klingemann, but she needs Eric out of the way and that Need is stronger than her Need to keep the vampires happy. She intends to murder Eric and make it look like the agents did it. She also intends to make it look as if the agents are in league with the Chinese mutant vampires. That way her bosses will think this was all part of the meta-plot, not a private quarrel between siblings.

Albert has a kill team on standby to finish the agents off as soon as Eric's out of the way. The intent is to have the agents plus a couple of Chinese Renfields all get killed by Albert's people, to make it look like the agents were caught with their Chinese paymasters by Albert's heroic countermeasures. Thus Bankhaus Klingemann's dynamic duo get what they want and keep their own hands seemingly clean.

From this point there could be all kinds of future developments. The Chinese mutant vampires, suitably outraged, might go after the agents next, only to attempt to recruit them as soon as they realize the agents were just patsies. The agents may go after Albert, and find all kinds of peculiar things in his Lisle-a-like dungeon. Or the agents may end up in Bonn, trying to plumb the depths of the Bankhaus Klingemann Node. From there they may discover that Bankhaus Klingemann's been funding some peculiar research laboratories all over Europe, working on some mysterious plant hybrid.

From there ... but you get the idea.

Enough! Next week, something completely different.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style Part 2 (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Before I dive in, a bit of housekeeping.

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.

Talk soon!