Monday, July 29, 2013

Board Games, RPGs and Night's Black Agents

Our Sunday gaming group has been on a moratorium. We lost a couple of players and found out the latest Ashes of Athas installment would be the last. Our Dark Sun game lost momentum and sputtered out, despite heroic efforts by Rob, the DM at the time. We picked up some new blood and were muddling around trying to figure out what to do. The moment seemed right to start back up with the Sunday game but I had only just started working on an adaptation of the Cadwallon world to DnD (long story short, it's the system people are used to). Not willing to move ahead with an unfinished product, I picked up my copy of "Night's Black Agents," so as to give myself some time to finish the first phase of world development.

For those unfamiliar with the Night's Black Agents, it covers a world of intrigue where the characters play spies/secret agents in a modern world where Vampires exist and pull strings behind the scenes. It's based on the GUMSHOE system by Robin Laws. It's a simple enough system that allows for cinematic action without a lot of mechanics to bog things down. My brother sent me a copy (seemingly signed so I assume Kickstarter?) but I hadn't given it much thought. I read through the rules in a couple of days and decided to run with it.

The first part of prep was to re-read the important rules, chases and combats are the most complicated but there's really no tactical element (somewhat less important where you are on a battle mat when you're dealing with bullets as opposed to swords). Second was to steal a page from board gaming and make a whole bunch of little circular tokens that represented each skill. The idea behind doing this was that I was making all the characters for my players. I told them very little about the game in order to preserve a layer of mystery. I didn't tell them about vampires or any of the other supernatural things that could (and would) happen to them in the game. Instead of a character sheet, I handed them a dossier with a character history, a couple of cards that represented unspent characters points and their MOS (military operation specialty, basically an auto-success once per session), and a couple of plastic baggies full of counters that looked like this:

In the GUMSHOE system, each skill point adds to a pool for that skill. Each point in the pool can be used to get some answers from the DM (in the case of investigative skills), to boost chances of success, or to do something totally awesome (in the case of general skills). My hope was that this would help with immersion and would ease game play, giving some new players (and a new DM) a little bit of help with the gravity of spending points from the pool. The other hope was that I could avoid the players needing a character sheet (there aren't really any stats) and I could handle the bookkeeping, leaving them to think of awesome cinematic things to do while they roleplayed. 

Unfortunately, best laid plans and all that. I didn't make enough counters (nor did I get the fake money to put into the dossier folders and didn't manage to stencil the full names on to the folders...) and wasn't able to sort them into baggies before the session. When I set out on this project, I didn't realize that there are 62 possible skills (health, mental stability, and languages being skills) that I needed to make counters for. I also didn't appreciate the number of each counter that I would need to make so I ended up shorting a lot of the investigative skills since there was a great deal more overlap than I had expected (next time, make characters first!). So, in the end, I gave the players their sheets. 

Fortunately, no one paid much attention to the Vampirology skill and the undead guy in the adventure came as a total surprise. The session ended on a high note with the Analyst character taking some vodka he had bought (and explicitly brought with him in order to try to bribe some guards), making it into a Molotov Cocktail and rolling a six to hit the baddie square in the face.

The players enjoyed having the counters, even if there weren't quite enough. We're going to try to finish up the adventure next session so we'll see how things go on the second attempt. I have high hopes that we'll get some great descriptive roleplaying. The party was getting into the spy setting by the end of the session and things were starting to get interesting.

Last thing about the counters: I got the process for making them off a Board Game Geek forum post by Nick Hayes. I made the counter icons in Paint.Net. I bought a 1 inch Arch Punch, a cheap rubber mallet, a package of chip board and a cheap cutting board to make the counters (I had some spray glue already). I printed the sheets out at FedEx/Kinkos cuz I don't have the wherewithal to buy ink for my printer. All in all, it cost me about $40 (about half of which was the Arch Punch). I'm not too concerned by the cost since all but $7 was equipment necessary for reproducing the process. I was able to put 56 1 inch counters on a sheet of 8.5x11 paper and made 11 sheets so it comes out to about 6.5 cents per counter, I think. Next batch will be just the time and the printing costs.

I didn't bother to make the counters double sided (I'm lazy). The chipboard offers some nice heft to the counter but if you wanted, you could probably make them out of heavyweight card paper. Here's a picture of the back and sides:

If you like this idea and don't want to take the time to make your own counter icons, profit from my hard work. The counters are here (I'm hosting them on Dropbox because Google Docs changed the formatting). I'm sort of embarrassed by the pictures on a few of them so if you have a better suggestion for an icon, please let me know. If you're offended by any of them, also let me know. As far as I know, I used free images but if not, let me know and I'll change whichever icon you wish. I'm not big on infringing on copyrights.