Good things of day begin to droop and drowse…

Greetings from a shadowy coffee shop with suspicious customers leaving with someone else’s briefcases. I’ve ordered a latte and a coffee cake and fully expect a secret message in one of them.
Vampires have a prominent place in popular culture. This includes books, movies, series, and so on. The same thing is true of spies and spy thrillers. Writer and game designer Ken Hite combined the two in the form of Night’s Black Agents. This combination is good – it’s like combining chocolate and peanut butter. It’s so natural I’m surprised no one really used it before.
I will review the game’s mechanics before diving into some of the game’s nuances and making irresponsible meta-commentary.
Night’s Black Agents uses the Gumshoe engine. Robin D. Laws developed this game system. Laws and Hite share a long-running podcast, “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff.” On the podcast the pair is like someone crossed Professor X and Magneto with Statler and Waldorf. 
Laws developed the Gumshoe engine to handle games that involve mysteries. The Gumshoe engine addresses an ongoing issue in RPGs involving finding clues. The characters can miss clues – even obvious ones – based on dice rolls. An archetypal example is the party needs to find a secret door to get into the villain’s lair. But everyone fails in any attempt to find the door because of dice rolls. So they spend hours wandering in a circle around the villain’s living room.
The characters always find clues in the Gumshoe system. They will always find the secret door, the envelope with a map tucked behind the desk, the memory stick hidden in a jar of dry beans, and so on. What they do with the clues is a different matter. The party might follow a false lead. But even falling a false lead means the game and story are in motion (Hite & Laws, 2011-2022).
Gumshoe is a rules-light system. The only dice it requires is a d6. In character creation players choose from a list of skills and abilities. These include computer hacking, driving cars, medicine, etc. A character’s ranks in the skills are marked by points – these are added to the d6 roll. The base difficulty is 4 – the player wants to roll high. It is more likely a character will succeed at a particular skill roll if they have points.
Hite makes some changes to this base system. One of the most exciting changes is the rules in Night’s Black Agents for trust and betrayal. Hite writes that while groups can role-play through trust and betrayal, “…a mechanical system offers reinforcement both in game terms and around the game.” This is to say trust and betrayal cannot be dealt with a handwave – making them rules means they become part of the game’s economics. This system of game economics will involve the entire group because it can involve success and failure at dice rolls. Players must stay alert as the vampires consistently try to turn the characters against each other (Hite, Night’s Black Agents, 2012).
Another interesting aspect Hite provides in the book are the four different modes of play. Night’s Black Agents draws inspiration from spy movies and literature – but there are many kinds of these stories. The Jason Borne movies strike a different tone than the George Smiley movies. Hite provides different modes in the book to allow a Night’s Black Agents game to closely match a specific style. The Dust mode is designed to fit the tone of “Three Days of the Condor,” while the Burn mode matches the vibe of the Borne movies, the Mirror mode matches the tone of the John le Carré books, and the Stakes mode is closer to films like “Taken.” Hite adjusts the rules of Night’s Black Agents for each mode – so these modes are not abstractions but are types of play where the mechanics reinforce the desired tone. 
Night’s Black Agents
I will praise the book’s graphic design before diving into the book’s themes. This aspect – which can be overlooked or taken for granted – is good in Night’s Black Agents. Hite covers a lot of proverbial ground in the book. But the text is easy to follow, the table of content clear and thoroughly hyperlinked, and the fonts easy on the eyes. A minor complaint is the chapter on character creation should have appeared after the chapter on the rules. Presenting the rules second is somewhat confusing.
The book uses art well. Art comes from Alessandro Alaia, Chris Huth, and Phil Reeves – and it all helps convey the book’s vibe. The cover art is superb.
In terms of the book as a spy thriller game…
Spy literature in a recognizable form appeared in the early 20th century. It grew from social awareness of how the great nations – mostly of Europe – maneuvered to gain power and did dirty deeds to maintain that power. It also grew from a romanticized view of nationalism (Woods, 2007). Some of these early stories include Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling, The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad, and The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erskine Childers. Writers kept the genre going in different styles and with different moods. Ian Fleming gave agents style and panache with James Bond. John le Carré gave agents the opposite of style and panache with George Smiley (Polmar & Allen, 2004).
The spy genre has been around for about as long as science fiction. It has also created easily recognizable characters and popular tropes. And it appeared as a genre only a few years after the publication of the novel Dracula.
Hite has said the elevator pitch for Night’s Black Agents is to imagine Jason Borne meets vampires. This combination is a good one. It’s so natural I’m surprised no one really used it before.
Hite has also said Night’s Black Agents is a deliberate pushback against the relative softening of vampires in popular culture. This includes their depiction in the Twilight books and movies, the “True Blood” series, and “The Vampire Diaries.” There has arguably been a cultural shift in how vampires are used and depicted. They were metaphors for slum lords, abusers, and predatory assholes once. Now they are often portrayed as inherently attractive, stylish, and tragically maligned people. People have stopped using vampires as a metaphor for something to destroy – vampires have become an aspirational metaphor. Hite pushes back on that in his use of vampires in Night’s Black Agents. I will get back to this point.
The game starts with the players running characters – called agents – as highly trained and experienced military or intelligence service operatives. Then they discovered vampires are real and involved in politics. The agents are burned as a result: they are considered persona non grata by the office for whom they formally worked. The agents must fight to survive and ideally demolish the scheme the vampires pursue.
The game’s stress on the characters as extraordinary is a minor thematic issue. This concept precludes having “everyman” characters. Some of the best thriller movies involve an average person pulled – often by accident – into a dangerous conspiracy. This includes films like “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest,” and “Three Days of the Condor.” Night’s Black Agents expressly cites “Three Days of the Condor” as a source even when it does not help build the everyman character. This worth noting even if it isn’t a major flaw.
Night’s Black Agents is written to encourage play and use. Hite frequently advises the game master – called the director in the book – to anticipate being surprised and support the player’s actions. He writes that “information is only withheld when it makes the story more interesting.” He also notes that a game master should say yes to coolness and go with the players’ ideas or choices that are cooler than the game master. Hite provides a broad and flexible outline for a campaign but is against railroading players into a predetermined plot. He does not place the power entirely in the hands of the director or pit the agents against the director.
The book also provides some solid rules for chases, including on foot, in vehicles, and in three-party chases. Other rules in the book cover many of the actions you might find in a spy thriller, such as fist fights, gun fights, leaping out of things, and carousing. Night’s Black Agents has rules for dealing with agent burnout and even descent into mental illness. This level of detail will not be needed for all possible modes of play – but its inclusion here is good for when it will be required.
Hite provides four possible types of vampires in the book. Night’s Black Agents is home to many options that game masters and players may tailor to suit themselves and their game. The possible types of vampires include the supernatural, the damned, aliens, and mutants. Hite discusses determining the best match of vampire type to game mode. The various powers and weaknesses of the vampires are also detailed.
Night’s Black Agents presents three possible cities for a campaign and a discussion to guide a game master in developing their own city setting. Hite also provides a flexible outline for campaigns. He calls this the “Thriller Skeleton.” Another tool he gives is the “Vampyrimid.” It is another helpful tool for a game master to handle a campaign as it develops even if the name the “Vampyrimid” is twee.
The title of Nights Black Agents comes from Shakespeare. Specifically, Act 3, Scene 2 of Macbeth. It is a scene where Macbeth invokes powers of darkness and evil to fortify him in his evil deeds. “Good things of day begin to droop and drowse; While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse” (Shakespeare, 1601).
The phrase is also the title of a fiction collection by Fritz Leiber in 1947 (Leiber, 1947). A variation, “Night’s Black Agent,” in the singular, is also the title of a thriller by British writer John Bingham (Bingham, 1961). This detail has an interesting wrinkle – I might need a conspiracy board with note cards connected with a spiderweb of string to explain it.
One of the most influential British writers of spy novels and thrillers was John le Carré – the pen name of David John Cornwell. George Smiley is one of his most memorable and reoccurring characters (Harding, 2016). Cornwell served in British intelligence and worked for Bingham. George Smiley is based in part on Bingham (Carré, 2012). The model for George Smiley wrote a book with nearly the same title as this RPG about spies and vampires. It’s all connected – it doesn’t mean anything that it’s all connected aside from some interesting trivia, but it’s all connected!
There are also some interesting etymological connections with the term’s agents and agency. In social science, “agency” is the capacity of individuals to have the power and resources to fulfill their potential (Barker, 2003). Moral agency is an individual’s ability to make moral choices based on right and wrong and to be held accountable for these actions. A moral agent can act concerning right and wrong (Angus, 2003). But most intelligence agencies require their operatives to surrender their own individual agency – moral and otherwise – in service to the agency itself. This often happens in fiction. How often it happens in real life is a matter of debate.
Intelligence agencies often function as a kind of secular mystery cult. Again, at least in fiction – how often that happens in real life is a matter of debate. The mystery cults were religious schools of the Greco-Roman world for which participation was reserved for initiates. The central character of a mystery cult is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the ritual practice that were not revealed to outsiders. Members learned more of the secrets as they served the cult and became initiated into leadership circles (Barnes, 1947).
Intelligence agencies – secular mystery cults or not – perform in service of the state. The evil and purported good they do serve the state’s goals. Sociologist Max Weber defined the “state” as a political body maintaining a monopoly on violence. This is a cogent and amoral definition (Cudworth, 2007). French philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault wrote that the state “…is no more than a composite reality and a mythologized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think” (Gabbard & Beaulieu, 2005).
As a corollary, the statement from Foucault reminds me of the quote from Game of Thrones, when the character of Littlefinger spoke to Lord Varys, “The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It’s… a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.”
Hite’s definition of the state includes actual predators for the purposes of this game. To put it another way, the state – or at least some of its apparatus – stands revealed as an abattoir engine run by and for vampires in Night’s Black Agents.
The terms state and society are not interchangeable. But for good and evil, the state can be a defining force in terms of morals, and ethics, in the form of law and law enforcement. People often conflate morals, ethics, and the law. The state also helps to define identity in the formal of nationalism and patriotism. This is relevant here because there are several different story types, including man against man, man against himself, and man against society (Ross, 2003). Night’s Black Agents is a man-against-society game.
Characters in Night’s Black Agents are on the run, opposing the state in many ways and in many ways in opposition to society. Does this make the characters immoral? It might in the “social contract” sense of society if the state and its vampires are the only things that keep chaos away (Hobbes, 2017). It would in a “rational-legal authority” sense, if the rational-legal authority is cold and ruthlessly practical (Gerth & Mills, 1948). So be it. The moral high ground is to oppose abattoir engine rather than feeding it.
That said, Hite should have presented an option where the players run willing servants of the state, seeking out traitors, malcontents, revisionists, and so on. Hite provides other modes and opportunities in the book, including one with no supernatural elements and one for using Lovecraftian cosmic horror in the setting. The book is admirably thorough in most mechanical and thematic aspects. But not supporting a game option where the players run huntsmen serving the state is an issue.
Night’s Black Agents is thoroughly emulative. It is mechanically simple and arguably conceptually simple – it requires players and game masters to be familiar with the genres. But that is not a big ask.
Most works of any kind should be judged by how well they achieve their goals. Hite set a goal for this book of effectively, and compellingly, combining the spy thriller with vampire horror and to make it all an RPG. In this he succeeded.
The core rulebook won Best Game (Silver Award) and Best Writing (Silver Award) at the 2013 ENnie Awards. The game deserved these wins. I am comfortable in saying Night’s Black Agents represents RPGs as art. Hite has done good work welding two genres into a single high-concept game and compellingly presenting them. Reading the book does make me want to play the game. And a central conceit of my series is group buy-in is the deciding factor in an RPG being art. Based on its popular success, Night’s Black Agents does that well.
Angus, T. (2003). Animals & ethics: An overview of the philosophical debate. Ontario: Broadview Press.
Barker, C. (2003). Cultural studies: Theory and practice. London: Sage.
Barnes, E. W. (1947). The rise of Christianity. New York: Longmans Green and Company.
Bingham, J. (1961). Night’s Black Agent. London: Gollancz.
Carré, J. l. (2012). Call for the Dead. London: Penguin Books.
Cudworth, E. (2007). The modern state: Theories and ideologies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Gabbard, D. A., & Beaulieu, A. (2005). Michel Foucault and power today: International multidisciplinary studies in the history of the present. Lexington Books: Lexington.
Gerth, H., & Mills, C. W. (1948). Bureaucracy. In M. Weber, Max Weber: Essays in sociology. London: Routledge.
Harding, L. (2016, September 2). John le Carré: I was beaten by my father, abandoned by my mother. The Guardian.
Hite, K. (2012). Night’s Black Agents. London: Pelgrane Press.
Hite, K., & Laws, R. D. (2011-2022, October 8). Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Retrieved August 2022, from Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff:
Hobbes, T. (2017). Leviathan. New York: Penguin Classics.
Leiber, F. (1947). Night’s Black Agents. Sauk City: Arkham House.
Polmar, N., & Allen, T. (2004). Spy Book. New York: Random House Reference.
Ross, E. I. (2003). Write now! Suprising ways to Increase your creativity. New York: Barnes and Nobles.
Shakespeare, W. (1601). The Tragedy of MacBeth. London: Norton Critical Editions.
Woods, B. F. (2007). Neutral ground: A political history of espionage. New York: Algora Publishing.

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