This story starts with a fantastic game I have always wanted to play … Night’s Black Agents (by Robin D Laws).
It has vampires; it has cool spy stuff; and it has a conspiracy to investigate … this game has everything I want to play in and play with.
The problem: it has too many rules for me to digest, particularly as I’ve played more and more online.
The solution: find a lighter system that gives me some of the Night’s Black Agent experience without the crunch.
Operators (by Kyle Simons).
In play we found the novel use of fate/fudge dice interesting, but the mechanic didn’t provide the explicit fail-forward mechanism we’d hoped for.
Learning: the core mechanic must ensure forward momentum. Failure should always be on the table, but with an explicit option of succeed at a cost.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the game, though, is the way that the game is structured. The Director Sheet explicitly breaks down the game’s structure into gameable cinematic chunks. This really blew my mind!
- Starting in media res with the clear intent of giving the characters a chance to show what they do best through hard framing. “What is it we see you doing to show everyone you’re an expert at disguise?”
- Introducing the villain in a cut scene, to demonstrate why they need to be brought down. This struck me as an excellent way to make the stakes for an operation or series of operations explicit. “We see a silhouette outlined by the illuminated Eiffel Tower - what do we see that shows that money is no object to them? What tells us that this person is the embodiment of a hunter?”
- Asking the players where the next operation would take place and the obstacles they’d face. While handing players that narrative control was cool it removed any real need for them to use softer, investigative, skills; but then to be fair this is not an investigative game.
Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley
As soon as I read ‘when you confront a Mythos creature, describe how you die’, in Cthulhu Dark, I was in love! However, despite Cthulhu Dark’s slick and elegant mechanics it is still a game of inevitable failure. I don’t mind playing to fail, but I want to decide to fail in play, rather then know I’m going to fail from the start.
Learning: find a way to offer players hard choices between inevitable decline and slower decline at a cost. Test how much they are prepared to risk or lose to stay ahead of the horror.
Then, Rich Rogers ran a two-shot of Hutt Cartel, a re-skin of Magpie Games’ Cartel Quickstart, for play in the Star Wars Universe.
I’d read Cartel but it felt a little sharp edged for my escapist inclinations; but in play the stress and drug moves were brilliant drivers for the individual character and the broader story..
Learning: write a move called seek relief from the horror which reduces character Stress if they give in to vices or baser instincts. Give the move consequences that complicate the narrative. Bingo!
Learning: you could play a Cthulhu game and experience success … sometimes. While confronting a Mythos creature probably kills you there are always minions vulnerable to a commando knife or grenade. That gave me the idea for confront the [threat of choice]. It also mattered whether you had a grenade or a commando knife so I lifted the Forged in the Dark concept of selecting a Load but picking specific gear during play, as it was needed.
You can see where this thinking got me in Projekt Dark Prometheus and Alien Dark.
Third attempt … build on what you know works … and discover what doesn’t …
Projekt Dark Prometheus gave me confidence that I had some solid mechanics that would enable competent characters to confront potent adversaries, and players could have fun doing it.
What was missing for a supernatural techno-thriller was the benefit of using ‘the right tool for the job’, so I added the ‘right tool die’.
Learning: Graham Walmsley didn’t come up with the dice mechanic in Cthulhu Dark by accident. Adding the ‘right tool’ dice to most rolls made the game too easy. The players went away feeling hyper-competent but too safe! Instead, flip the relationship between character expertise and gear so instead of getting a bonus die for the gear, require the gear in order to get the expertise die. “No, Hacking isn’t going to help you with this unless you select a laptop from the gear list …”
Against the Dark Conspiracy (by Alun Rees).
The first session always begins in media res as the characters get an initial lead while having the chance to show us what they are good at.
A one-shot or Session 2 onwards always involves a cut scene in which we see the Conspiracy reacting to events the characters have triggered. This adds atmosphere and gives players concrete antagonists with motives shaped by their actions.
Character Stress inevitably rises through a session, indeed a key function of the GM is to prompt ‘roll for Stress’ by using any backstory prompts to unsettle characters. However, seeking relief from the horror can keep them functioning at the cost of doing something reckless or revealing. The lowest personal cost is always to reveal something about someone they care for … but that puts that person on the Conspiracy’s hit list. Alternatively, they could reveal something about their backstory with either the member of the team they care most about, or the one they care least about, and risk it turning into a shouting match, or worse.
Sometimes succeeding at a cost isn’t good enough so characters can get out of a hole by doing something cool or flashing back to call on a contact … both of which cost them Stress but that’s not a problem … is it?
Clumsy failures or success at a cost generate Heat that raises the Conspiracy’s level of alarm and preparedness until they come after the team, their contacts or, worst still, the person they care about, their Anchor. That can have lasting effects on a character’s capacity to absorb Stress. Success in an Operation can, though, reduce Heat and Stress as they degrade the Conspiracy’s effectiveness. They can reduce it further by spending Intel against the Conspiracy to distract them; another hard choice about where to spend a limited resource.
I believe that what I’ve ended up with at the end of this design journey is a game that offers players hard choices in the moment but also hard choices across a narrative arc and that the mechanics are light and stay out of the way of a shared narrative. While it’s not an ‘investigative game’, it rewards investigation without the need for the GM to have plot details or clues at their finder-tips, instead it gives players a chance to shape where their investigations take them.
If this intrigues you then Against the Dark Conspiracy is part of ZineQuest 3 on Kickstarter launching on 11 Feb 2021, and you can find the first of a series of 3 Gauntlet sessions here.