Ken Hite is a friend of mine and a favorite game designer. I love his Cthuhlu based RPG books and his lyrical writing. In general, Ken is a fab guy to get to know. He is a master storyteller and someone you can learn from. ~JLB
The core scene of my vampire spy thriller RPG Night’s Black Agents flashed into my head while I was waiting for a train in on the way home from a gaming session. Standing there on the deserted platform at night in Chicago, with the rails and high-tension wires thrumming and the hot wind blowing on my neck, my mind turned quite naturally to vampires. I was looking for the next game to run for my game group, and I hadn’t even formulated the question into words before I had the answer. I was watching it unspool in my head, the escrima fight from the second Bourne movie, but my mind’s-eye Paul Greengrass had replaced Bourne’s rolled-up magazine with a wooden stake, and the German Treadstone agent with a vampire. Possibly before the train arrived, the fundamental story of the game had materialized: “Hunt or be hunted. Kill or be killed. Or worse.”
But what vampires? If all my vampires were the same, the game would rapidly devolve into garlic sprayers and UV flashlights. It wouldn’t be scary, or even exciting. Since I already had the core of who our heroes were – Jason Bourne types, burned or buried spies – I knew the game should feel like a modern spy thriller. What if the vampires were the mystery? I could run a playtest campaign for a game about hunting vampires, and about hunting answers about vampires. That meant it could use the GUMSHOE system, if I could amp its pacing up from mystery to thriller, toughen its sinews for the fighting and chases I’d need to add.
The alpha playtest was over about a year later, filling a spiral notebook with rules mods, tactics, and core play experiences. My alpha campaign presented a secret war of time-slips and Cathar conspiracy, led by a cult that worshipped extra-dimensional silicon entities modeled on the vampires and the djinn from Tim Powers’ novels The Stress of Her Regard and Declare, with just a touch of 30 Days of Night. But I couldn’t just replicate my campaign. (Although my alpha playtest vampires do appear in the Night’s Black Agents core book, as the “Perfecti Petrus” and “Alien Stones.”) Next step: take my specific campaign and pull out the general principles for an RPG modeling a thriller trilogy: revelation, confrontation, destruction.
I had to give every GM (or Director, the name I chose for its dual meaning in intelligence bureaucracy and movie-making) the power and tools to build her own mysteries and horrors. Add a modular system for building vampires, with lots of options and possibilities taken from every source I could find. Add another modular system for building vampire conspiracies, the mirror maze our spies could fight and find their way through. Notes on building cities for globe-trotting action. Notes on building action and tension, taken from screenwriting books and thriller beat analysis as much as from my own campaign. (I took the tools for my own thriller beat analysis from GUMSHOE designer Robin D. Laws’ book Hamlet’s Hit Points, a study of narrative in drama and RPGs.) Then more playtesting, by and for strangers this time. Then more revisions until every Director could play their game with my game.
All to get back to a lone hero on the run, killing a monster in verité close combat, who I saw on a hot night waiting for a train in Chicago.
Night’s Black Agents debuted this August from Pelgrane Press.