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Live-Read: The Mechanism

This post is a cleaned up version of a live-read Twitter thread I posted today; I’ve been doing those as the mood takes me, and it’s a kind of fun, lazy way to review tabletop RPGs. My wise friend Ginger noted that I should be collecting these on the blog. I half-thought I had been but I was wrong! Thus, here we go. (It might be entertaining to compare my speed-written text with what happens after I have a chance to re-read it and wince at my clumsier phrases.)

I just received “The Mechanism,” a Night’s Black Agents convention scenario by Gareth Hanrahan, as a bonus with one of my other Pelgrane Press orders. As I read the first scene, I realized the loosely written approach was interesting to me, so I figured I’d share.

For those who haven’t read or played it, Night’s Black Agents is an investigative GUMSHOE based game in which you play ex-spies fighting a vampiric conspiracy, usually in Europe. It supports the spectrum of spy genres — thrillers, gritty psychological drama, whatever. Buy the original, and watch for the two player version coming soon, it’s gonna be awesome.

OK, back to “The Mechanism.” It’s a slim con scenario. I assume it’s aimed at 3-4 hours of play, possibly new players, lots of excitement. It’s 12 pages including the title page. There’s not a lot of art; I count two pieces, both of which are just fine.

It kicks off with a quick intro to the specific vampires and set-up. This is really bare-bones, which makes sense — it wasn’t originally written as a campaign set-up. The Persephone Extraction, the campaign-oriented book of scenarios this is paired with, spends much more space on all this.

For the next page and a half, we get the spine of the investigation. This sucker goes all over Europe — three locales in three countries. I’m assuming that Pelgrane wanted to show convention players that NBA involves travel. The second page of spine is 2/3rds consumed by a scene flow diagram — that’s valuable page space, so this is a strong signal that these diagrams are important. Which they are. As an experienced GUMSHOE GM, the scene diagrams is the tool that allows you to free-form and improvise well.

More specifically: the GUMSHOE GMing trick I finally figured out was that the scene flow isn’t a straitjacket. The scenes they outline are touchpoints — you can add to them, you can modify them, they’re just signposts and building blocks. This is not always obvious if you’re not familiar with the system.

The first scene reinforces this. It’s not a scene the way you’re thinking. There’s a guy on a plane, and there are other people, and there’s a list of events that will happen barring player intervention. There is info to give the players, including an objective. Then there’s a paragraph which makes it super-clear that there’s no script the GM and players should follow: the scenario is presenting a situation to be resolved. This is the bit that made me recontextualize this scenario as a sandbox with differently sized building blocks and made me want to write about it.

That approach continues in the next scene. For example, one lead gives the characters a reason to visit the Royal Opera House. There’s minimal other material to support that possible scene — one paragraph in the following scene. The GM is expected to improvise if the game goes that way. And that following scene isn’t really a scene either; it’s a page detailing possible ways the players might interact with the hostile NPC who they’re currently dealing with.

It’s well-layered; there are lots of ways to pick up just the core clues needed, and there is more information available if players choose to spend resources or time appropriately. Also, there are notes on blowback if the players have been incautious.

Now (as we move to the next locale), it’s worth noting that the scenario is very short on color. The only thing we learn at this point about that next locale is where the vampires live. I imagine the assumption is that, well, we all have Google — I can find all the pictures of this city I want online. This is a consistent pattern: no space was wasted on explaining what London looks like either. This isn’t a fault, although I think I would have maybe dropped in a paragraph explaining that expectation. But space is limited and this isn’t aimed at new GMs, so.

I like that around here, the scenario starts talking about ways the players could be getting ahead of themselves. There’s an obvious way the players might scuttle the vampiric plans here, halfway through the scenario. That branch of play has a response outlined.

Fast-forwarding a bit here (but only a bit, the scenario moves really quickly): the last location gets the most blow-by-blow detail, which makes sense. The vampires are working on a plot which culminates there, so the expected pieces will be in place barring something really odd. This is where it makes sense to invest time on details, because they are relatively likely to be used.

The scenario spends a decent chunk of time reviewing the vampiric plan and the vampiric backup plan. There’s one weak point in the whole thing; the scenario explains it. There’s also a good outline of what will happen if the players don’t do anything, and the events that would ensue really ought to motivate them to act. Usually that’s not a huge problem at conventions; one-shots encourage players to take risks. However, it’s still wise to build in ways to motivate more passive players. The ultimate fight is particularly well structured — if the players blow the initial approach, there are a couple of more difficult ways they could try and stop what’s about to happen.

The last bit of the scenario is the Aftermath. The author… hey, who wrote this? No credits, boo! (Edit: Gareth Hanrahan wrote it.) Anyhow, the author extended the convention scenario to work well with The Persephone Extraction, and it looks like connecting them would be fairly seamless. If the players completely fail to stop the evil plot, the GM will need to extrapolate a bit, but I don’t think that would be hard.

The last page and a half contains a handful of stats. Good to put these in one place at the end rather than scattering them through the scenario, I think. Makes it easier to reuse enemies, and if I were printing this out to run, I’d appreciate having all the mechanics living on one double-sided piece of paper. There aren’t any pre-generated characters, which I find slightly odd for a convention scenario… oh, no, I just checked. The Persephone Extraction has a nice set of pre-gens, and if you have “The Mechanism” you also have that book. You can also grab a different set of pre-gens from the Night’s Black Agents resource page.

“The Mechanism” is fun and I want to run it. I think it needs a good GM to handle the loose framework well; if you can’t improvise, this is a bad scenario. (No judgement, it’s not a universal skill.) But I think the format is correct for a modern day adventure with resourceful protagonists. And it’s enjoyable reading things like “if necessary, you can skip the whole <location> Sequence.” I’ve gotten so much more comfortable with improv after running Blades in the Dark for a while; that comfort makes this scenario more intriguing.

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