Adventures in Spying and Steampunk Investigation

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 12 March 2012

Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the Boston ENWorld game day. I had a blast and got to try two new games, Night's Black Agents and Leagues of Adventure. I will admit up front that I didn't get a chance to read either rule set or the games they are based on, so there's a chance I misunderstood the rules or misremembered a detail. However, I find it useful to see players' reactions to games and thought I would share mine as well.

Night's Black Agents

The first game I played in was a cinematic spy thriller, Night's Black Agents, designed by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane Press. Based on the GUMSHOE system, the game provides plenty of opportunities for players to do recon, perfect for a spy game. Kevin Kulp, one of my favorite GMs, ran it and the other players were pretty awesome.

This was my first introduction to a GUMSHOE game but I had heard great things about it previously and I'm a fan of Robin D Laws. I really enjoyed the diversity of skills, although they didn't come up much in our game. (Our players seemed to be very action oriented.) And having flirting as a skill will always appeal to me even if I don't use it right away. It acknowledges that there are many ways to accomplish tasks.

I'm not sure of the level of experience of the rest of the table, but within the 4 hours or so for the game, we were able to learn the rules and tell a rather thrilling spy story involving suitcase nukes, Russian arms deals, Colombian drug cartels, and, at the very end, learning the truth about the existence of vampires. We opened with a car chase, guns blazing, and closed with helicopter explosion on a hotel rooftop and diffusing the nuke at the last possible second. The table particularly enjoyed my character walking out of the room while the nuke continued its countdown because she had a score to settle. Her teammate tried to get her to stay by pulling on her heart strings, mistakenly claiming that she was going to let her hometown blow up and kill thousands of innocent people. She coldly replied, "This is not my hometown."

While I enjoyed the game, I think it shines even better after a few run throughs and with groups who know each other a bit better. I'm still rather new to the art of improv and I know between trying to figure out the rules and being around new people, I often forgot to make my statements and scenes into something that could easily be built upon by others. So, it sometimes felt like we had a series of threads that were only barely connected.

Another difficulty I had was with the recharge mechanic. The way the game works is that you have some number of points available in certain skills. I interpreted this as how skilled your character is in those things. While you can roll for any skill, any time you roll in one of the skills with points, you may deduct some of the points from your pool to add to your die roll (the game uses a 1d6). There are periods when you may refresh your points, but in between those times, characters have traits that let them refresh points by saying something in character that's related. So I had the parkour trait that would allow me to refresh my Athletics point pool if I described one of my physical tricks in a cool way (at the GM's discretion). On one hand, this is really cool and encourages people to say cool stuff in character.

On the other, I found myself really reluctant to use it. Some of the reasons can be found in the article Game Design and Sexism: Player Feedback Mechanics. Both of my refresh traits were related to traditionally masculine things, parkour and guns. I don't think anyone at the table would have questioned anything I said if I decided to try to use technobabble or jargon. I know that people would be fine with movie logic and that movies often just invent this stuff to sound cool. I know Kevin would have helped me out and in fact did when I decided to describe what I would say instead of saying it directly, but it's one of those things I'd like to point out more for the general audience. One thing that might have helped would be a list of phrases I could have used as building blocks, similar to the Thieves' Cant article in DDI (subscription required).

The other observation I had is that it would be really cool to have Leverage-style flashback mechanics in the game rather than the preparedness check that the game had. I like that in Leverage, anyone with a plot point can trigger a flashback, even if they aren't in the current scene. I think this helps to both make the story formed in the game more focused on action (rather than spending much of the session preparing for what we think might happen) and integrated together because we're not all trying to establish the cool for our character. Also, not all characters had preparedness, including mine, so I felt more reluctant to put my character in a position where she might not have something she needed.

Leagues of Adventure

The afternoon game I played in was Leagues of Adventure, a yet-to-be-released (coming later this year) Victorian steampunk game by Triple Ace Games. It uses the Ubiquity roleplaying system and we used the Hollow Earth Expedition books as reference. We played a mix of fictional and real life charcters, Sherlock Holmes and his trusty assistant Watson, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, H. G. Wells, and Nellie Bly. I played the last one which was a pretty good fit.

As with Night's Black Agent, the system has rules for rewarding players who play in character. Each character backstory has a number of goals or specific role play elements that, if triggered, get the player a style point he or she may use later in a number of ways. I played Nellie Bly and I would get style points if she dissuaded Holmes from commenting on her appearance, if she tried to get Bill and Jane back together, or if she chatted about wordsmithing with Wells. As with Night's Black Agents, I sometimes felt out of place with it because I sometimes felt like I didn't know enough details about how to make those things happen and it wasn't obvious to me how to stop someone from commenting on Nellie's appearance.

One of the difficulties with playing Nellie is that she was the team leader and her character story suggested that she would do whatever she could to get the team to work together, although sometimes she would have to put her foot down in regards to Bill's misogyny and sexism. On one hand, this seems like a good fit for me, because well, that's sort of how I am. On the other, it could get frustrating in game. Many of the characters were written to have a romantic interest in Nellie and I often was at a loss about how to deal with male characters who wanted to be chivalrous (which is pretty period) while still giving Nellie the room to be, well, Nellie. Also, while most of the group knew each other, I was a bit new and I both felt reluctance to play up the sexism and misogyny, and sensed that reluctance from others (for good reason). I think it's a great subject to explore with friends but I felt a bit unsure what to do among a group of people that I was meeting for the first or second time.

The other thing that was a bit strange to me was the dice system, ubiquity. While the system is relatively easy to understand once you get it, it took a few tries for me to understand it. We played with the Ubiquity dice which means we had 3 sets of 3 dice, white, blue, and red. One set, the 1s, has 0s and 1s, a second, the 2s, has 0s, 1s, and 2s, and the third, the 3s, has 0s, 1s, 2s, and 3s. Next to your skills is a rating number. For instance, I had brawling 8. To roll my brawling, I would pick up a dice pool equal to the number of the rating, in this case two 3s and one 2, and add up the result to see if I got enough successes. While cool in that you could theoretically use any dice to accomplish this, I have to admit having to do that much math all the time (since I used a variety of skills) grated on me after a bit, especially as I tired from a full day of gaming.

Of course, this has much more to do with me than the GM, the group, or the game, all of which were awesome. My husband showed up as we were finishing the game and hearing our snippet of the game and looking at the character backstory convinced him he wants to give it a try when I can get a copy of the book.


I enjoyed both games, both the systems and the people I played with, and would love to play again.

It is so cool to be able to read all about the games before we try them out ourselves. You really seem to know what you are talking about and know how to portray your thoughts so that we understand exactly what they are like.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the Leagues of Adventure game! I was the GM.

If you have any more comments on the things you mentioned in the blog post concerning the skills/system or how I could tweak the Nellie Bly PC (via the character description and interactions page) I'd be really happy to hear them. I rode back to PirateCat's place with my wife (they played Watson & Jane) after the game and they both had some really good constructive criticism of the game and their characters. I am running the game with similar characters again over the next few months so tweaks are bound to happen and that's all based off input from the players. :)

If you are curious, I'm likely replacing the two Cowboy PCs with Harry Flashman and either Lola Montes or Lillie Langtry. I didn't like the feel of Wild Bill's racism, not that his player did much with it thankfully. But I don't like that kind of topic in lighthearted RPGs and making people at the table feel uncomfortable isn't at all fun. And Jane was fun as the token "crazy & wacky PC" but I could see future players having significant difficulty if they weren't comfortable with the group.

Another good point that I liked: It was pretty obvious that most of us had either played together before or were good friends, which was absolutely the case. I think you did great considering I've been in the same spot and hardly participated in the game at all! If there is anything I could have done or could do in the future should that situation pop up again I'd be glad to hear it.

Thanks again for playing and I'm really glad you had fun!

Hi, Sarah,

Thanks for writing about Night's Black Agents. Kevin is an excellent GM.

You mention a refesh mechanic. This applies to a number of skills as a "cherry" - that is an ability you've specifically chosen to be especially proficient at. This applies to a few abilities (Driving, Parkour, Martial Arts and Shooting) where characters have a very high rating. This is by no means the only way, nor even the main way of refreshing pools. We allows for the fact that players (male and female) may not be able to improvise such jargon by encouraging players to come up with set phrases in advance "These utterances needn’t be improvised; players can prepare key phrases in advance, then adapt them to the situation at hand." Abilties which refresh in this fashion are by their nature General abilities (ones where you spend a resource to decrease your risk of failure) and not investigative and interpersonal abilities such as Flirting or Chemistry, which use a different mechanic. I hadn't particularly associated these general abilities traits with female zones of knowledge, but I can see why you do. Which of the abilities would you describe as "traditionally feminine"?

I suspect it's particularly hard to use this rule in a convention environment where you are concerned about people judging your performance, and to be honest, we haven't used this rule much yet (though the players will if they spot it!)

In any case, your suggestion is a good one, and fits right in with the "prepare in advance" idea.

Thanks, Simon! To be honest, I'm not sure which ones would be "traditionally feminine" although those two might apply. For flirting, I tend to imagine pick-up lines just as easily as batting one's eyelashes but, it's still fairly rare to see women in books, movies, and TV shows spouting off gun-related jargon. It's gotten a lot better for sure, but I think that's where the issue comes into play at times.

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