Thursday, May 15, 2014

From Russia: With Blood

From Russia: With Blood

A while back, I was poking around on the internet and decided that it was high time I ran some more Night's Black Agents (NBA from here on out). I came up with a plot for a one shot but it was too rote and formulaic so I pinged the inimitable +Zeb Doyle and together we hashed out the structure for a one shot NBA adventure. Adventure in hand, it was just a matter of getting permission to take over someone's gaming group for the night. Lucky for me, +Fred Kessler allowed me to run his group for an evening, with him as a player.

The Prep

Building on my previous NBA DMing experiences, I decided to do the preparation correctly this time. One of the things I like about running NBA with new groups is the idea that you're just a bunch of badass spies doing badass spy stuff when suddenly, everything goes all pear shaped! I used the counters I've posted about before (see here) with three improvements: The first time I ran an NBA game, I didn't have enough counters. So I created a spreadsheet where I tallied everyone's skills and then sorted all the counters, made some more, and so on. I also made some counters to represent Trust Points. I hadn't used them before but that was a huge mistake. They added so much to just this one session that I'll never go without. Lastly, I made some new character sheets that removed the Vampirology skill (I meant to do this last time but didn't. Luckily it didn't matter because my players didn't notice. I didn't want to count on that happening again).

The idea behind all this obfuscation is two fold. There's the roleplaying aspect of encountering vampires for the first time. It's easier to act surprised if you actually are. The second is to cut down on metagaming. As a player, I know if I'm playing a game that I know involves Vampires, even if I'm technically not supposed to be aware of them, my character is going to be eating nothing but Garlic and Onion sandwiches.

The last thing I did was to make characters. Because I only had about four hours to run the game I didn't want to get bogged down with character creation. I copied out some barebones descriptions of the skills and allocated their skills chits in little baggies. I didn't get around to making table tents color coded to the trust counters but c'est la vie.

The Plot

Talking with Zeb about the possibility of an NBA session, we decided it would run best using current events. The situation in Crimea provided a perfect background for my first foray into NBA (and GUMSHOE as a whole) adventure writing. Previously, I'd relied on the Zalozhniy Quartet (excellent, btw), but it didn't fit the schedule. After poking around on the internet a while, I came across the legends of Tafur, King of the Beggars. He was a general during the Crusades and wielded a great deal of power due to the fanatical loyalty of his troops (who seem to have been the poor sods who followed after the knights and their men at arms). The Muslims had a different view of Tafur since he and his men practiced cannibalism, sometimes going so far as to roast and eat captured soldiers in view of the opposing army as a method of intimidation.

It was decided that Putin, along with the help of a sinister Dr. Lischinsky, had resumed the Super Soldier programs that had been pursued during the Cold War. The Soviets had been injecting "volunteers" with a toxic cocktail of drugs and tailored viruses that enhanced speed, strength, and pain tolerance (actually made skin tougher and deadened nerves), but came at the cost of degradation of sanity and a great desire to drink blood. The inevitable result was the test subject devolving into bloodlust and killing indiscriminately until they either gave up and drowned themselves trying to slake an unquenchable thirst with the blood of the fallen, or imploding as all their muscles collapsed in the most gruesome way possible. Before the subject reached this point, the only sure way to kill them was to cut off their head. Some even showed the ability to function without a working heart. 

Of course certain subjects lasted longer before succumbing to the insanity. With the help of modern technology, Lischinsky had found the virus they were using was the cause of the physical changes. Those who lasted the longest seemed to have a genetic sequence unique to the descendants of Tafur. This, of course, made Putin interested in finding the body of the fallen general in the hopes of processing some stem-cells from his bones and perfecting his Super Soldier serum.

Putin's had his agents scouring the Middle East and Europe to find the body of Tafur and have finally tracked him, they think, to a tiny church in Istanbul. Little do they know, the church used to be a safe house for the Templars (cuz I mean, why not). Tafur used to be buried there but was spirited away and transported across the seas to Sevastopol, where his remains were interred in the cliffs surrounding the harbor. Later, while the Russians dug tunnels to hide from Nazi bombs, the tomb was found but the soldiers/slave labor that was doing the digging didn't understand the significance, died shortly thereafter, were shell-shocked into catatonia...

At this point, our characters enter the scene. They're all hanging around in Istanbul for various reasons. They've worked on various ops for the NSA before. They've been told the NSA has detected some major movement from the Russians over SIGINT and need local assets to carry out a mission. Our characters are the only capable assets who can act swiftly enough and are now riding in a van toward the Church of Godefroid (first king of Jerusalem, crowned so by Tafur). 

The Execution

The evening started with me handing out the characters and the players realizing they weren't playing DnD. That was fine since I'd told them approximately nothing about what was happening, just that gaming was going to occur. This was mostly to keep them from Googling "Night's Black Agents" and getting an inkling this wasn't merely a spy thriller. 

I spent about three minutes explaining the rules and set the scene. The characters were in a van racing toward the aforementioned church. The van was driven by their NSA handler, Jason Harbin, an analyst character I had made. Only three players were available so I sort of played Jason as a handy NPC who could get the characters gear or provide a mouthpiece to some of the more complicated questions they asked. Harbin had contacted the characters with urgent business, top-dollar pay scale. He told them what he knew. Something big was up on SIGINT and the Russians badly wanted something in this church. Their mission, get their before the Russkis or, worst case, prevent the Russians from using what they found.

At this point the players asked for a variety of gear which I mostly let them have. I gave them a few tidbits of information to demonstrate how the point spending went and then told them the van had arrived at the destination. The assassin character, played by Anthony, went forward to investigate while the other two players casually wandered up the street, talking in Turkic. Mr. Harbin stayed in the van to monitor the situation.

The players asked how they knew it was a church. The outside was poorly marked and dimly lit. The only overt sign was a small Templar cross on the ancient wooden door. I showed the players a picture but it didn't ring any bells right away. It wasn't until the had searched the place (finding the priest drunkenly snoring in his small cell) that they asked about the symbol. A spend of Occult Studies later, and they were aware this was related to the Templar's somehow.

The characters had found a small wooden door tucked behind some dirty tapestries hanging from the wall behind the crucifix. Taking out flashlights, they descended into the darkness. At the bottom of a steep, winding stair case, they found a small cave. In the middle was a tomb/sarcophagus with the effigy of a crusader in bas relief. The walls were painted in brilliant colors in a style akin to the Bayeux Tapestry. There was some Templar imagery apparent in the frescos and a boilerplate Latin inscription on the the tomb but nothing beyond that.

I expected a bit more paranoia at this point considering they knew the Russians were on their way but no preparations were made. They opened up the sarcophagus and learned two important things. One, the skeleton entombed there was that of a woman and probably wasn't as old as the it ought to have been (Forensic Pathology), second, they spotted the word "Tafur" inscribed on the bottom of the tomb. Before further examination could be made, the players heard footsteps on the stairs and they took up defensive positions.
Much to their surprise, there was a sort of sniffing noise and a voice in Russian said that there were three people in the cave down the stairs. The players exchanged concerned looks and wondered aloud how the hell that worked. That was sort of their first clue that something was out of the ordinary. 

What was coming down the stairs were 4 Russian soldiers, just basic infantry men with 4 hit points each. They were accompanied by one of the Super Soldiers from the reactivated program. I modified the stats from a Feral Vampire to represent the Super Soldier. I decided that silver would make the Super Soldier virus seize up like Tetanus (which is super gross, look it up if you want). Since none of the players had silver, it wasn't really a problem. Any other banes weren't a concern either so it was just them versus some crazed vampire type guy.

The first two soldiers were disposed of pretty quickly. Despite not really knowing the rules, the players figured out the spending system quickly making some excellent decisions without any prompting from me. They worked well as a team, coordinating in believable ways. The two remaining soldiers were firing their weapons from around a corner in the stairs with the vampire stuck behind them (the stairs were narrow, of course).

Using one of the soldier's body as a shield (with a great roll and a large Athletics spend), two of the players rushed up the stairs to take the confrontation to the Russians. The third player rummaged in the other soldier's pockets for a flashbang. I had decided the Russians didn't have grenades because it would have been a very short fight considering the position of the characters so he didn't find anything. Due to some good rolling, the players sudden rush was wildly successful. the soldiers were down but the vampire was unhurt. One of the soliders wasn't quite dead and was screaming in pain, having been shot just above the hip. The vampire picked him up with one hand and flung him at the two characters on the stairs, knocking them both backward (requiring an abberance spend and killing the poor chump in the process). I repeated that he'd just picked up ~250 lbs of human and gear with one hand and thrown that load with a great deal of force but it didn't seem to register with the players that this was abnormal.

The players put up a good fight against the Super Soldier but he was starting to do some real damage to them when the Hacker put a bullet in soldier's head at close range (rolled a six while spending the remainder of his shooting pool). However, instead of collapsing and dying as the party expected, the vampire rolled down the stairs and started sucking at the wound of the dead Russian infantry man (the guy who had no grenades, not the erstwhile body shield). 

The player reactions to this were what a DM lives for. The look on their faces was amazing and made my whole day. Questions were fired at me from all sides of the table: "wait, what?" "What the fuck did he just do?" "Sucking? Like not licking at the blood but actually like drinking?"

I had decided that in the first stages of duress/virally induced breakdown, drinking blood would restore abberance and hit points to the super soldiers. At this point, the Russian soldier, his muscles swelling from the intake of fresh blood, burst out his bullet proof vest. This elicited another round of shocked reactions as the Russki/vampire wheeled and roared at our heroes. 

The Wet-worker decided to end this for once and for all and spent most of his weapons pool to take a called shot at the neck with his sword. His desperate gambit worked and despite the vampire's panicked backward lunge, the sword neatly decapitated the unfortunate Russian. The man's body collapsed in on itself, cracking bones and wrenching itself apart until it lay in a soggy mass on the floor. This necessitated a stability check for the players which they all passed. They raced up the stairs to hear Jason yelling into his radio about how more Russians were on the way and they had to get the hell out of there (and hello is anyone alive omigod!). Leaping into the van, the players careened away from the scene. 

Repairing to a safe house on the other side of the city, the players began doing some research. They started with Tafur, the name etched into the underside of the lid of the tomb. This brought a wealth of results regarding the Crusades. They followed various threads to the Mount of Sion and the Templar's base in Scotland. 

While processing this data, the Face leveraged some Russian contacts he worked for to get the Hacker some help in breaking into the FSB database. A quick Data Intrusion spend and a decent roll later, and he was rifling through reams of data regarding the resurrected Super Soldier program. He found a separate server where Putin had a secret internal email account he was using to communicate with a scientist named Dr. Lischinsky. This revealed to the players that the safety of western civilization was at stake and some feelers were put out about the location of Lischinsky.

More importantly, at least in the short term, was the location of the body of Tafur. Through some more research, the players found a Church of Hermon's Mount in Sevastopol. They concluded that this would be where Tafur was buried considering the direct connection to the Templars (from some of the documentation they'd found earlier). The next challenge was how to get into the Crimea.

Jason came back with the news that something big was going on in Sevastopol and the players decided they Russians had come to the same conclusion they had. They found there was a big Anti-Russian protest being organized with an equally large Pro-Russian counter protest in the works. The Hacker found both protests were being organized from the same IP cluster in Moscow and was able to track a bit of troop movement going toward Sevastopol.

The Face created a cover identity so he could pose as a Turkish oil investor fearing for the safety of the oil in the Crimea. With a little help from the other two (and Jason), he was able to convince one of the Russian oil companies to fly the team directly into the city. The Wetworker contacted his Ukranian colleagues to get enough equipment to arm a small South American nation delivered to a warehouse some ways off the harbor.

Locked and loaded for bear, our heroes cautiously mounted the hill up to the church. There they found an old priest who wore an inconspicuous Templar badge. Seeing this, the players explained the situation and he ushered them down into the tunnels beneath the church, pulling an old Tommy gun out of a closet and vowing to protect the door. The Russians however, hadn't figured out about the church and had, instead, been wandering through the tunnels cut years before.

Due to the superior research, the players reach the tomb of Tafur a few minutes before the Russians. At this point we were out of time (the first combat dragged on because everyone was having too much fun). I asked them what they were going to do with the remains. The unanimous answer (from the players, Jason had no voice) was "destroy it, do you think we trust our governments or any government with the remains?" This before I even had the chance to present them with their options. What a bunch of do-gooders. 

The problem then was how to make sure there was nothing salvageable. The Wet Worker had a few points in Explosive devices and we hashed out that he could make a fuel-air explosive device by dissolving the bones with the silver nitrate he had made and then detonating it all with a blasting cap (they had some foam explosives). I have no idea if any of this would actually work but his chemistry spend said it would. I told him it was going to take a miracle, especially since the Russians arrive during the blowing up process so they were going to have to be held off until the fuel-air mixture was correct. He spent all his explosive points, got trust points from everyone (they party been pretty stingy with them up to that point) and rolled a 5! Enough to judge the mixture right and blow up the bones (and a good portion of the cave) with his jury-rigged explosives. 

After a quick discussion of strategy and escape routes, I deemed the party had successfully retreated into the night, leaving the ruins of an ancient tomb with some fresh bodies in it, but without the material to really kickstart the Russian's Super Soldier program. Civilization was saved! Much fun was had and new rules were learned. 

All in all, I think it went very well. The obfuscation of the system worked to a tee. The introduction of the vampire/vampire-spawn was more successful than I hoped. One of the players asked me, after the combat, "so everything we know about this world, up to this point, is that it's normal, right? There's no magic or other freaky shit that we're aware of?" To which, of course, the answer was no, until that moment, everything was just like the real world. I like that Night's Black Agents can capture that spy thriller feeling without being heavy handed in the Vampire/horror realm. I like knowing I could run a mundane NBA campaign if I wanted to and it would work great.... but why bother. It just wouldn't be the same.


  1. Sounds like a great game! I was concerned that your plot length was slightly overambitious with the amount of time you had available, but it looks like you did a nice job saving it at the end. And the moment when the PCs realized they weren't fighting standard human Russians sounds like it was worth the price of admission right there.

    What was so great about the trust points? You hinted at the start of the piece that they were pretty cool, but then never mentioned them again. I know when we were brainstorming, I was pushing to set the players up with potential clashing agendas, but I'm guessing you didn't go that way. It would be nice to hear what the trust points did do.

    Congrats overall on what sounds like a great session. Was there any interest from the players in doing a campaign and further exploring NBA, or was it back to D&D for them?

    1. The trust points played out in an interesting fashion. No one trusted the Wet-Worker very much. He was decidedly a Ukrainian national but flirted with some Right Sector views. This lead the Face, an ex-Mossad, to not trust him very much. Since the German-Turkish Hacker had some bad history with Neo-Nazi's, there wasn't much trust there either. The trust points came into play a couple of times, most notably when the players decided to blow up Tafur's remains.