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.


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