GUMSHOE: Night's Black Agents - Tinker Tailor Vampire Die

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First Post
<<notes resume>>

Hour two of the train ride started off easy. The train had power, the passengers were safe and the team didn't even have to fight. This looked like cake.

And then the train slowed down.

Normally, trains do that. It's expected. You can't go zipping across curves, everyone knows that. But here, on this flat stretch of land before a tunnel, there's no reason to slow down.

Everything slowed down. The train. The people. Time. ((I've been experimenting with the 'time dilation bubble' mentioned in the book - I'm not happy with it yet, but getting more comfortable))

The bubble passed, but the team knew something wasn't right. So they, in good agent fashion, split up. Mace went as far forward as he could. Nick went as far back. The rest of the team scattered among the passengers.

Nick didn't find anything. Mace did.

The engineer was face down at the controls, his body weight pinning the deadman's switch down so the train kept running. His head though was spun completely around the wrong way, his face frozen in shock. Mace went in for a closer look and...

the creature, large and gaunt and stinking of sulphur, old baby food and wet mulch was on top of him.

[Mace then began a good series of spends. I'm listing them here: Filch 2, Sense Trouble 1, Athletics 2, Athletics 2, Parkour Refresh, Shooting 3, Athletics 2, Human Terrain 1, Sense Trouble 2, Athletics 3, Driving 1 + Athletics 1, Parkour Refresh]

This is how the fight went down:

  • The creature took a swing at Mace
  • Mace grabbed the small fire extinguisher
  • The two of them tussled. The creature although stronger, was hampered by the small room.
  • Mace avoided a few attacks and used the weight of the extinguisher to push it back.
  • The creature backed up in order to charge
  • Mace jumped and spun OVER the creature
  • The creature was....confused ((So was the GM))
  • Mace discharged the fire extinguisher at the creature
  • The creature, although not one to breathe, had trouble adjusting to the foam. ((We called this a visibility penalty))
  • Realizing that if the train kept up at this speed, it would hurtle down the cliff and into a small town, Mace slid under the creature and put his back to the controls.
  • The creature dug its fingers into Mace's face, and nearly plucked out his eye.
  • Mace, pinched by the creature, used the time and the weight of the corpse to drive the train slowly through the bend
  • Mace then smashed the extinguisher into the creature's teeth and lept out the cabin's door.

Eye bleeding [Down to 2 Health], he grabbed salt from the bar car and sealed the cabin. He limped back to the team for medical attention [Byers: 7 point Medic spend, Medical refresh, 2 point additional spend - not technically in the rules, but Mace's player said, 'If you let Mace live, you can do anything you want'] ((This is the moment where I took 2 pages of outline and tore it up, in front of the players. The gloves were off -- this is also where 3 players made plans to buy the book AND/OR sign up for more games I'll run))

Hour three: Mace recovered under Byers' care and the team did a collective [6-point Research and Occult Studies] session to discover that the creatures on the trains were NOT the vampires they've previously encountered but some sort of summoned creatures, evil beasties that take orders from someone...someone who has to be with 900 feet of them.

That meant the train was in double danger. On board were not only the beasts, but their master.

Surveillance picked up some communications between the train and the local police, there were reports of a stalled bus on the tracks ahead, and that they should slow to a halt just after the next local switchover. Mace was in no shape for a second fight, so he stayed back with Alice to keep tabs on things. Nick took over with a two part mission
  1. Slow the train to avoid catastrophe
  2. Get rid of the beasts and their summoner.

Part 1 was easy. They had no opposition getting to the engine and finding the car empty - no corpse, no beast. Just the engineer's hand torn off at the wrist, bent and broken like a vise to keep the train moving.

Rossini ((after a pause to consider trains)) slowed [Piloting, 5-point spend] the train to a halt, and in his best faux German accent informed the passengers of the problem.

Predictably, the passengers looked out the windows.

The bus was a school bus, packed with kids, all of them beating against the glass. The outside of the bus was dressed in sigils, runes and symbols, like it drove through a slaughterhouse carwash.

No one knew what to make of this. Mace did.

Drive the train into the bus, turn the whole mass transit system into your accomplice. The ritual was going to sacrifice the kids inside to accomplish whatever the summoner intended. Bastard.

The bus looked disabled. The train was about 80 yards from it. Nick had a plan. Send the team out to free the kids. It would draw out the beasts and the summoner. Nick (and Mace) could stop the summoner. Everyone else was on save-the-kid, kill-the-beast patrol.

Rossini made it to the bus and found the bus chained to the rails, the engine drilled into and the doors locked from the outside. The windows though, still worked. He pulled two or three kids out through an open window and then [Notice 3 point spend] found the bomb wired to the axle.

This had the makings of a disaster.

He made a phone call to [13-point Network spend] a local news reporter that he occasionally dabbled intimately with ((Valerie Kansas-Jones, Global News Channel)) and she was able to get him a van and another bus ((okay, it was a party bus full of bachelorettes, but this was short notice and Rossini IS insane)) but the kids came off and everything was good, right?

Well except that the kids were rigged with dynamite.

[Complete draining of the Explosives pool] and now is it okay?

Well, no, because the creatures came out from UNDER the train. But Rossini had all the explosives from the kids. And a bus. And a head start.

This fight was HUGE. Here's the breakdown:
  1. The first monster jumped from the train to the bus roof. Rossini managed to avoid making eye contact and went into the bus.
  2. Rossini used the bus CB to alert the local police and fire department that terrorists had hijacked some prototype military robots and were "getting all Terminator up in here".
  3. The second monster slipped from shadow to shadow and appeared IN the bus, and charged Rossini
  4. Rossini kicked out the windshield and broke off the bus steering wheel to hold the creature back.
  5. The first beast smashed its way inside and now it was 2 on 1.
  6. Rossini began tossing dynamite (lit) at the monsters and then climbed onto the roof of the bus.
  7. The dynamite was impressive, blowing apart one of the creatures and stunning the other.
  8. Rossini slipped UNDER the bus, jammed dynamite into and against the frame, and made sure to smudge any sigils he saw.
  9. The second monster responded by catching up to Rossini and threw him headfirst back against the train.
  10. Rossini, somehow ((he needed a 6 and got it)) [6-point Athletic spend] rolled on top of the train and prayed for death.
  11. Anna, who had been watching this whole affair from the engine room, [complete exhaustion of her Preparedness pool] had one shot with her sniper rifle.
  13. But her errant shot sent the creatures away from Rossini who...
  14. who pulled the track switch and collapsed unconscious into some bushes. Dr Byers dragged him back on board

((I'm glad she missed. She needed a little humble-pie, honestly, and it made the rest of this scene better))

Nick needed to herd the passengers to safety. Nothing says safety like fleeing an armed gunman. He put two slugs into the roof of the bar car and drove most everyone away behind locked doors.

Everyone that is, except the fat little man with a greasy mullet, chanting as he stared out the window.

This fight was far less big. Nick and the cultist wrestled. Nick's gun went off twice. The first time into the cultist, the second time into a stick of dynamite Rossini left outside. The explosion was small, but lit a fuse Dr Byers' laid (5-point Preparedness spend] that went back the bus.

The bus went up in a bloom of heat and cherry red smoke.

The monster, freed now by the death of its summoner, sailed off towards the horizon on invisible wings.

In the ensuing chaos, the emergency vehicles, the news crews and all that, the agents slipped away in a party van of bachelorettes, off to Munich.

It was time for Mace to leave a message for The Man.


First Post
This sounds very exciting - did the system support the combat? Did they use the thriller combat rules such as jumping in?

[13-point Network spend] Is this a typo?


First Post
This sounds very exciting - did the system support the combat? Did they use the thriller combat rules such as jumping in?

The system ABSOLUTELY supports combat, even across a large group, often with simultaneous actions. For a group like mine where it's very D&D, and very go-around-the-table-one-at-a-time, this is a beautifully fluid combat system - I'm probably not even getting all the details in bullet points. (Might try numbers next time)

[13-point Network spend] Is this a typo?
Yes, that's a typo. Sorry. Should be "1 3-point Network"

Oh, and as for "jumping in"....they do without realizing it. Not that the rules don't support it, but after we went through it in the first session and I explained it, they all liked it, understood it, and now it's pretty much a given. I will start tagging the [Jump-In]s as well.

Just posting again to say how great this campaign sounds, and what an interesting read it has been. I already own the GUMSHOE rules in a few different formats, but this is convincing me that perhaps I need Night's Black Agents as well.

P.S. Not a big deal if you don't, but for people like myself who own GUMSHOE but have yet to really create together adventures with it, is there any way you might see fit to identify "Core Clues" in your scenario? I am still trying totally wrap my head around the process of planning a game.


First Post
Not a big deal if you don't, but for people like myself who own GUMSHOE but have yet to really create together adventures with it, is there any way you might see fit to identify "Core Clues" in your scenario? I am still trying totally wrap my head around the process of planning a game.

Sure, I'd be happy to. (I should point out that there's a rather lengthy update coming tomorrow, as we're playing tonight). Also, because some of my players read this thread now, I'm going to only list the Core Clues and Conspyramid details the players have uncovered to date.

Also, for the sake of disclosure, I'm going to admit I may not be running Clues and Conspyramid "correctly", but I'm happy with my variation since it puts an emphasis on keeping play moving, rewarding my players for working together and creating a narrative thread through the campaign rather than just what-we-do-several-times-a-month.

I started with a Core Plot, and even went so far as to offer the Plot to the players before character creation. The Plot is as follows:

If you've been burnt as a spy, and you're not trusted by anyone, and you cannot trust anyone, what do you do when you realize you're still able to help do the right thing?

By not anchoring my plot to specific details (there's no single country and no single motivation present -- 'do the right thing' is incredibly subjective), I'm able to pose this question to each player so that they can create/shape characters in relation to their responses. Here, I found Drives, Symbols and Solaces to be a really great development tool because I had players creating characters ranging from black-ops leg breakers to criminally insane wheel men to variable takes on existing characters like Jim Phelps, Ethan Hunt and Lisbeth Salander.

From there, I built a Conspyramid. I know I wanted a really rich and deep concept, and wanted to stretch it across a wide swath of my own knowledge. I thought first of my major action 'beats', the sort of scenes I wanted to have the players experience: car chases, train robberies, bank heists, kidnapping, complete short cons, staking a vampire in a boardroom, Bourne series close-quarter fights...and looked for any connections I could draw.

I found two - 1. There's always a personal risk involved 2. The events are as much reaction to player-created consequences as they are independent occurences.

So I started with a simple act my players had seen in loads of other games - a wealthy man assembled a team and sent them on a particular errand. (This is the modern take on 'You all meet at the tavern and sign up to adventure').

And then I thought about what I liked and didn't like about 'wealthy benefactors' as game components. My players almost universally thought them untouchable or wanted bigger rewards and intense experiences (it wasn't enough to save the farm, they had to defeat the dragon AND the undead AND do it with a magic carrot).

But what if we took the Wealthy Man and couldn't trust him? Or immediately contact him. The wealthy patron became The Man. And immediately trust was no longer an assumed component of play.

Trust gone, I only had to create a starting adventure and whatever the players did (or didn't do), shaped the first blocks of the Conspyramid. Initially I considered playing it like a deck of cards, with all the villains being in series and progressively larger and more evil up the badguy-food-chain. But then my players DIDN'T kill the villain when they had a chance, and thought that they could use him as a mole to give them intel.

That's the moment they were hooked, and I changed the Conspyramid to more fluid (about 60% fluid) model where I have some key pieces, but a lot of open real estate to play with.

The Core Clues became "keys" to those favorite beats I wanted to get into. There are a total of 400 I've put together, and I don't expect them to find 100 total. (I should point out that I'm a writer and editor by trade, so creating plot elements is not foreign to me).

Core Clues Found So Far (From my players' email list)
  1. The list of safe deposit boxes from allegedly random banks in small towns throughout the US and Europe. The numbers are all divisible by 6, and all were purchased sometime prior to 1929.
  2. If an agent has only 1 surviving parent, that parent received a large check from the 'Acme-Arkham Trust Fund and Library' in an amount equal to the birthdate of the agent (year month day) -- So 197604.11 for one agent.
  3. The agents' former handlers have all received obituaries for at least two of each agent's Cover IDs. The cause of death has always been something biblical or historic (crucifixion, stoning, exsanguination, poisoning)
  4. The deed for the abandoned house (one of the events listed here) is in the name of the kidnapped jewel thief (also described in this thread)
  5. Each agent has found at least 1 bug in their homes, even if their home is a rented motel room they paid cash for.
  6. When the agents need to travel somewhere, they will often find extra tickets or luggage along with their reservations (they'll book 4 seats and find that they've been given 6)

My Core Clues are bridges from the plot to the action. I go further to divide my Core Clues into two types - Local and Greater. Local Clues are the ones that help THAT night - the informant's name, the time a meeting is to occur - the elements that keep my session going forward for the 4+ hours we play. The Greater Clues connect the sessions to the overall conspiracy and global plot. And usually I cluster this information into three facts:

  1. The name of someone either parallel to the person giving information.
  2. The name of someone higher up the food chain, often talked about in panicked whispers.
  3. Items or materials that can be used to by the agents to discover more of the plot.

I don't mean items like "the golden hand of Doug", as that would render my game too much like a Zelda-clone. I mean here "cocaine, that they can hijack from a shipment leaving the docks at 0245 this morning, if they hurry and get there before Alan can switch container lablels" (From this info, they know the plot has to do with drugs, shipping things, late night meetings at the dock and some badguy named Alan)

I hope that helps. If you're still stuck, this is the formula I use, and you can plug in elements:

  1. Pick an element from one character's backstory.
  2. Make something bad happen because of that element.
  3. Add to that bad thing between 1 and 3 also on-going bad things that are related to it (if the bad thing is that a mentor dies, then add to it assassins or suspicious circumstances, etc)
  4. From that expansion, make an NPC responsible.
  5. Take the responsible NPC and give them a job.
  6. Take that NPC's job and make it intersect with the Agents needs (Alan is a hacker, he's trying to out-hack the agents).
  7. If that's still too linear, consider creating a third party (another NPC, another job, another bad event) and making it happen BECAUSE the first one is happening -- (The party is going to meet Alan because he's hacking credit cards? Well then the Triads will also want to talk to Alan, and they're going to think the players are Interpol).


I was really intimidated by core clues and adventure building when I started. They turn out to be much easier than I'd thought, because we've all seen a jillion spy movies and they work the same way. Here's how I put together my last one-shot; please don't read if you plan on playing in my game at next weekend's Boston game day.

I decided I wanted something that starts with action and involves Colombian drug lords. I also want it to involve vampires but seem for most of the game as if it doesn't. I didn't want it to start and end in South America, though, so I decided to start in media res in some eastern European city. Bucharest? No, after glancing at a map I think Krakow looks cooler.

Okay, a gunfight in a warehouse? No, more cinematic. A car chase? Hell yes. So we start with a car chase in Krakow, the PCs trying to catch someone. Who? A known terrorist, but a minor one who has something they want and who leads them to a big guy. Hmm, let's say a Russian mobster. What do Russian terrorists have? Suitcase-sized nukes!

So I start off with the PCs chasing a Russian terrorist who they think has stolen nukes. I have my maguffin. If they catch him, he'll immediately spill what he knows about his boss [CORE CLUE], who has clearly taken the nukes and flown off somewhere to sell them.

In play, I treat the car chase as the beginning sequence to a James Bond movie. I treat the interrogation as something that happens behind the movie's title sequence -- glossed over quickly in montage, then cutting to the punk spilling what he knows.

Okay, where to next? I know and love Cartagena Colombia, so let's make it there. That suggests drug cartels. Why would a drug cartel want to buy nukes? Damned if I know. Wait -- what if one of the cartels is run by a vampire who is going insane and wants to drive up the value of his drugs? Pulling a Goldfinger and nuking a rival's coca fields will certainly do that. But that still doesn't ring true. Okay, we make the vampire a camazotz (a man-bat) who was created by a pre-Columbian tribe that worshiped bats. They worshiped at an idol of him that later disappeared into the jungle, forgotten by all but the vampire, and which is now found and owned by another cartel. Having it in the hands of an enemy is literally driving the vampire crazy, making him make irrational decisions (like thinking that nuking a rival is an entirely reasonable plan). So we have a cartel leader who can use nukes to both raise the value of his crops and to punish a rival who is withholding the most important thing in the world to him? Okay, that'll work!

That suggests a couple of clues.

1. The Medellin cartel has a huge drug shipment in the US that still hasn't hit the streets several weeks later.
2. In Cartagena, where the Russian terrorist has flown with the bombs, the annual gathering of the three big drug cartels is happening at neutral ground (a resort hotel).
3. While the Cali and Cartagena cartels are sending their best men, as always, the Medellin cartel is sending mostly mediocre lieutenants. [CORE CLUE - it suggests that Medellin doesn't want to kill their best people.]
4. There's tension brewing, with Medellin and Cali fighting. Apparently the head of the Cali cartel has an archeological find (a statue) that the head of the Medellin cartel wants
5. That statue is a bat-winged totem with a face that actually resembles the Medellin drug lord's. Huh. Wacky coincidence.

The plan, of course, is that the insane vampire is going to take one bomb away with him (to irradiate his rival's fields) and use the other one to blow up the hotel in Cartagena, wiping out all of his rivals in one fell swoop and destroying the evidence.

Into this come the PCs. I encourage them to infiltrate the hotel and parking garage and party, to meet the Russian (in disguise!) and the cartel heads, and to gradually figure out that the Medellin head is a vampire. They have the opportunity to disarm the one nuclear bomb just in the nick of time, and hopefully they stop the vampire from escaping with the second. Then they have to take down the vampire before it can get to a place of safety with the warhead.

I've run this five times now, and it's gone well every time. I keep the beginning much more scripted than the end. I know what the mind-controlling bad guy is going to do -- get the bomb, send the terrorist back to blow up the second bomb, try to escape. It's up to the PCs to figure out how to stop him.
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First Post
((GM Notes are in double parentheses)
[Mechanics are in braces]

((There is a rule I'm particularly fond of, and have been since I first discovered it -- (I'm paraphrasing here) 'If you get captured, you'll be given a chance to escape AND you'll find out information along the way'. This has always led me to wonder about how critical capture scenes are. We've all seen those bad tv-shows and awful movies where capture involves really corny and derivative scenes with spinning chairs and lights and implied threats. I didn't want to do that. But I did want to see what the party would do if confronted with it.))

After the most recent escapade, we decided to give the team two-weeks 'vacation' ((Our campaign follows more or less an actual calendar)) and this gave many of the injured and exhausted a chance to rest. It also gave the agents opportunities to do things other than the main plot ((all they had to do was email/text me details of what the character would do)).

Nick recuperated.
Rossini healed.
Anna brushed up on her reading [gained 1 point in Occult Studies]
Mike visited his wife's grave [Symbol].
Desdemona bought a small condo in a suburb [Solace].

Mace, well Mace wanted to track down The Man. And he fully planned to, asking Alice The Hacker to trace a possible lead [CORE CLUE] of a high-end business conference downtown in a hotel. Alice found Mace a room, but there wasn't enough time to build a strong enough cover to get him into the conference. He'd had to skulk/stalk the lobby and local bars to see what he could find.

Day 1 Mace collected "critical intel", which we mortals may recognize as the phone numbers of every waitress from the surrounding three bars. No one saw or heard any discussion of the conference at the hotel.

Night 1 Mace, after sleeping with Marigold (waitress #5 if you're keeping track), found out that she's supposed to pop out of a cake at the end of the conference - there's a birthday party planned for the Foreign Minister of Myanmar.

Night 1 Mace, on his way home from Marigold's place noticed he picked up a tail. He did his best to shake it [[attempted a car-versus-foot chase....Athletics and Human Terrain spends versus Driving spends until one side or the other reached a total of 10, or the scene warranted it - the driver never really stood a chance once Mace had a Lead greater than 2.] ((I need to revisit these mechanics, there was GREAT tension here, but mechanically and narratively all Mace needed was a corner and a traffic light to make this less a game-bit and more a story-element))

Night 1 In order to avoid the chase, Mace found Cynthia (waitress #2 from bar #2) and [without a Flirting spend ((she rolled a 1, he a 6))] and they got comfortable.

Day 2 Mace returned to his hotel room, showered, ordered breakfast.

And that's when it happened.

Room service doesn't come armed, right? And they don't normally kick in the door, do they?

Three men versus Mace. After hurling a bottle of holy water at them (something no man should be without), he figured at least 2 of them were human. The third, he had no idea, but that wasn't his fault - the third guy had the taser.

Mace dropped one [some very lucky rolls, no-spends] and then the other two were on him, and the tazer was as well.

He woke up in a shed, full of cheese and home-brewery gear. And every three hours for the next four days, he woke up when the lights went on, when the train rolled past and when they threw soup at him.

Warm and cold. With and without noodles.

[Mechanically, this was a 1 and 2 point reduction, then a 1 or 2 point refresh. And then genius struck -- An interrogation is a chase between the will of the captive and the needs of the interrogator. So it took some figuring out and tinkering with Stability and Healthy, but it was a smooth game play]

Mace didn't break. Not after the poison. Not after the countless episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba played on a loop. Not after some woman threatened to suck his blood out through his toes.

But he did see his chance to escape. About ten minutes before they would douse him in soup or rainwater, the doors unlock, as if by remote key toggle. If he timed it right, he could rush the door and escape on foot, or at least to some place he could manage help.

The guard didn't know what hit him [3-point Athletic spend + 2 point Hand-to-Hand + 1 point Diagnosis] and Mace managed to acquire a pair of shoes and an overcoat to make good his escape.

Turns out he was in a maintanence shed on the very back edge of an old high school. It wasn't abandoned, but very clearly run down. He slipped [Infiltration] into the cafeteria, then the library, and sent an email out to the team to alert them where they could meet him.

He managed to elude his pursuers long enough to shower, shave and hit on a few cheerleaders. ((Because when in doubt, Mace Hunter does everything)).

He rendezvous'd with Nick just as school let out. They returned to the scene of his capture, armed and ready for war.

But there was no war. Nick put a bullet in the guard before any alarms were raised or phone calls made. Mace scoured the room outside his cell for [CORE CLUEs] and found a list of local churches circled on a map, their locations connected by a red sharpie crucifix. The search also found a name "Dr Karen Elmont, Sisters of Mercy Hospital" along with equipment to duplicate her ID.

The team felt that this was a good time for Mace to...get checked out by a physician, and what better place than a hospital?

Next time....murdER in the ER.

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