Gambling (General Ability): You are conversant with the rules and etiquette of all forms of gambling … but can you have fun doing it?
Doctor No's opening scene is the first time James Bond appears on the big screen. He'd been the hero of several novels before the movie's debut in 1962, as well as a television series. This was Connery's first shot at the role, and he made it iconic.
Most Night's Black Agents players take Gambling for the cherry, Luck of the Devil. It's certainly useful - exchange any die roll, yours or your enemies, for one you like better. However it'd be a lot more fun if gambling were more central to the plot. Or even the focus of a Thrilling contest; after all, most of the plot of Casino Royale is about an extended gambling contest. Where Bond goes, let your agents follow.
But where does Bond go, exactly?
In the novels gambling has two main uses. Bond uses his talents to expose cheats, like Goldfinger and Sir Hugo Drax at the start of Moonraker. In each case Bond is brought in by a third party to expose the cheater. In Moonraker M brings Bond to his club, Blades, to confront Drax quietly and discreetly. M knows Sir Hugo is cheating and can't understand his motives, but appreciates that someone as important to Britain's nuclear missile program as Sir Hugo can't be exposed to scandal. In Goldfinger, while on a stopover in Miami Bond is asked by a passing acquaintance - someone Bond met during Casino Royale, but only briefly - to help expose Auric Goldfinger's cheating methods. Bond agrees, and only later discovers that Goldfinger is also a gold smuggler HM Government's got its eyes on.
In each case the scene has several elements:
First, it happens right at the beginning of the novel. This allows Bond to meet the antagonist of the novel early, form an opinion of him, get a good look at his methods and his tricks. Any character flaws or incipient megalomania is on display early on. Moreover there's no chance of bringing the whole thing to a premature conclusion with a bullet. A casino or member's club is basically neutral territory and even if Bond were so inclined violence is not an option.
It's also very cinematic. Serious gamblers bent over an immaculate table, either wagering or watching someone else wager. The theatre of the casino, of each bid, raise and re-raise. The exotic unfamiliarity of things like the shoe - that leathery bag used when the cards are dealt. Baccarat's simple enough that after seeing a hand or two you get the gist - two cards dealt, high card wins, face cards don't matter. Which is why her eight falls to Bond's nine even though both had face cards in their deal. So you don't have to spend five minutes before the scene explaining how baccarat works, even though it's more complex than I described - you can just deal cards. Blackjack has the same appeal; if you can count to 21, you know how to play blackjack. Poker's become so ubiquitous most people can follow along, though the intricacies of play are daunting for new players. Which is probably why four of a kind features so often in movie card games; much easier to show four aces winning than wonder whether a straight beats a flush. Anyone familiar with a card deck knows four of a kind is the best you can hope for, and will presume it's a good hand without being told.
Compare that with the Bond backgammon scene in Octopussy. I can tell you now, first, double sixes are next to no use in backgammon except under certain specific circumstances. Second, anyone so reliant on crooked dice as Kemal Khan would have been kicked out of the club years ago. There's just no way that would not have been spotted by the club's manager, and private members clubs are very, very sensitive about their reputation. Cheats get kicked out double quick, and the clubs that don't kick out cheats are the ones nobody in their right mind joins.
Finally, scenes like these allows the protagonist - the agent - a chance to seize the spotlight. Bond dominates that Doctor No scene, and it reveals a lot of his character in very economic bite-sized bits. No monologues, no dancing up and down in front of the camera - just cool, collected play. You don't even see his face for a full minute, in a two minute forty seven second clip.
So from a Director's perspective what all that says is, first, pick a game that everyone at the table at least knows something about. Blackjack, poker - anything the Director thinks the players are familiar enough with that someone at the table might get off some Thrilling dialogue. If the Director and at least one agent knows the difference between a running game and a blocking game, about covering blots and a lover's leap, then by all means use backgammon. Otherwise steer well clear of games you don't know.
Second, the major antagonist can show up, and that includes everyone from the head of a Tier Three Node to Dracula himself. After all, just as the agents can't leap across the table and stab Dracula in front of all these pesky witnesses and security, so too is Dracula prevented from causing a total party wipe. This is a good moment for everyone to strut their stuff and show how cool they are, not to wet the table felt with blood.
Third, if the Director intends for some important Conspiracy henchman to play a major role, like Oddjob or Khan's bodyguard Gobinda, then that henchman must also be in the scene alongside the major antagonist. The henchman ought to do at least one cool thing, or threaten the agents in some way, as Gobinda does when he crushes the crooked dice in his fist.
Double Tap introduces some new Gambling clues and new cherries, All In and Everybody's Got A Tell, but doesn't include Gambling in the list of potential Thrilling Contests. I think more can be done with this general ability, so here's my advice to you.
Step One: Establish Stakes. This is never about the chips on the table. It's about people. In Doctor No, the card sequence leads to a seduction scene. In Goldfinger, Moonraker the novel and Octopussy the film, the gambling sequence is all about cracking the opponent by exposing weakness - cheating, every time. In Octopussy the stakes are even higher, since by using the Fabergé egg - the MacGuffin everyone's chasing - as collateral, Bond leverages Khan into a position where he can be beaten.
So what's the stakes? In Doctor No, 1 point Flirting. In Goldfinger, Moonraker and Octopossy, 1 point Intimidation, Notice or similar. The agent is buying pool points in an Investigative ability with his victory at the tables, and spending it immediately in play. The player sets the wager, in other words, and that wager can be anything. Need a sportscar for that chase scene you just know is coming? Some Streetwise so you can broker a deal with those Triads? Flirting to impress that minor royalty so you can leverage a ticket to that exclusive ball? Get it through Gambling.
Ultimately what counts as a stake is up to the agent and Director on the day. However I recommend that stakes be calculated in terms of Investigative pool points. A stake is worth either 1 pool point in an Investigative ability, or the equivalent benefit in ordinary items. Ordinary is defined in context as something that is useful but not the equivalent of a Bane, Block or similar advantage against supernatural foes. Higher stakes are worth more points. Anything gained at the table must be spent during the scenario; it cannot be saved for future scenarios.
I can see an argument for allowing Cover or Network points to be won at the table. Pools of this type are strictly temporary - the equivalent of meeting a Sylvia Trench at Baccarat and leveraging that into a Network contact, or spreading the rumor that the agent is a high-stakes gambler from, say, China who just blew into town for the night. The Cover or Network contact gained in this way is strictly temporary, and will not last longer than the scenario unless actual experience points are used to build up that Cover or Network contact.
Step Two: Establish Difficulty. The higher the stakes, the higher the difficulty. Difficulty 5 gets a pool point. Difficulty 6 gets 2 pool points or extraordinary equipment, like a Bane or Block. More extravagant stakes mean higher difficulty numbers, but ultimately the limit is Director's discretion.
Point being, none of this is essential so you needn't worry about denying agents access to core clues. The agent is looking for extras, and ought to be prepared to pay for those extras.
The pool point, or whatever it is, ought to be spent as quickly as possible. No saving this up for future scenarios - cash in those chips now. This is to discourage players who might otherwise stack up on extra points by repeated trips to the table. Also, it's in keeping with the genre. Bond doesn't wait till the end of Doctor No to sleep with Sylvia Trench, nor does he leave Auric Goldfinger to fleece his unfortunate victim unmolested.
Step Three: Establish Consequences. In Bond's world there are always consequences. When he beats Goldfinger's card cheat, Goldfinger responds by painting Jill to death. Kemal Khan responds to losing at backgammon by threatening Bond. Bond's victory over Sir Hugo Drax means he stands out later when M assigns him to look into suspicious events at Sir Hugo's research facility. So what happens to the agent when the agent wins at the tables?
Either 1 point Heat gain or a Level One Antagonist Reaction, Director's choice as to which. Ideally Heat gain occurs when the agent is not pitted against a Conspiracy asset, and Antagonist Reaction occurs when the agent beats a Conspiracy target.
This happens whenever an agent wins one of these contests. What happens when the agent loses?
Ultimately that depends on the stakes involved. In contests where only 1 pool point was at stake, there should be no consequences - beyond the Gambling pool points spent, of course. Loss of pool points, and a certain amount of embarrassment, is enough.
However in situations where 2 pool points or some other form of extraordinary benefit was sought, consequences should be the same whether the agent wins or loses. That means 2 points Heat gain or a Level Two Antagonist Reaction, whichever the Director deems suitable.
That's it for this week. Enjoy!