Posted on September 7, 2011 by Flames
Stew Wilson from Zero Point Information is here to tell us about his new game Black Seven. A modern espionage RPG, Black Seven isinspired by stealth-action games like Deus Ex, Alpha Protocol, and Splinter Cell.
Infiltrating BLACK SEVEN
BLACK SEVEN started life in my throw-away ideas file, a couple of notes for a system that, at the time, I wasn’t able to make work. That time was 2004, and I was re-playing Deus Ex for the fourth time. Under the effects of too much strong coffee, I hacked White Wolf’s Trinity so that I could run Deus Ex-like games. I never had a chance to try it, and I was left with niggling little ideas that wouldn’t go away that wouldn’t work in my proposed hack.
Seven years later, I was re-playing Deus Ex for the seventh time, when all of a sudden I got one of those ideas that refuses to let go. Two nights later, I had a file of scribbled notes and ideas.
Over the course of another week, I stuck that file into Scrivener and rewrote the living hell out of it. At that point, I had a playtest draft. Testing showed me some wonky areas, and I was able to smooth them over. All of a sudden, I had a game. But where had all of this come from?
BLACK SEVEN isn’t the only game in its genre. I describe it as a stealth-action game because calling it an espionage game would invite comparisons to Spycraft, Top Secret/S.I., and Wilderness of Mirrors. Espionage is about the long game, while stealth-action focuses only on particular aspects. To use a cinematic example, “espionage” can do all of Doctor No, while “stealth action” only really comes into play once Bond and Honey are captured.
As you can possibly tell, I’m a massive video game fan. Deus Ex may have started the ideas rolling, but bits from No One Lives Forever, Alpha Protocol, and the Splinter Cell series all fed in to the design. When you look at the game in the abstract, a stealth-action game is a puzzle with a limited range of solutions that appeal to different levels of player skill. In effect, each solution’s made up of a combination of actions involving stealth, takedowns, and FPS-style gunplay. Chop each of those up in to four general “tasks” under each heading, and you’ve got the range of what players can do. Yes, you can sneak past guards. Or your can pick the locks on the vent shafts and not see a guard, or hack the cameras, or put on a fake pass and a confident smile and act like you’re meant to be there. If you’re taking a guard out, do you snipe from half a building away, get up close and personal, or fake a distress call from another area? Each level in a game presents a situation, and it’s up to the player to work out which set of specific actions from the limited selection available will work best with his or her own skill and preferences.
Likewise, video games operate on a primarily reactive level: the level and scenario is designed from the start, and it only changes in response to the player’s actions. In terms of pen & paper roleplaying games, that school of design calls back to pre-populated dungeons drawn out on graph paper, without even the thrills of wilderness encounters to add some randomness. I wanted something in place that would limit the GM to setting the scene and then following the rules same as every other player.
I don’t normally like prescriptive games. My ideal system looks a lot like PDQ, Over the Edge, or Unknown Armies—games with a lot of fuzz around the edges and flexibility built in. I don’t game with people I don’t trust, and a lot of prescriptive game design boils down to using the rules to replace the trust between players, because it’s not assumed to be present. Sorry, that’s a horrible sentence, but it’s true. However, BLACK SEVEN’s plenty prescriptive. How come?
At least in part, it has to be. I personally hate using maps and markers to work out who can see who, and what can hit what, but I wanted to preserve those tense moments when you sneak into an office and oh shit a guard! Stealth action as a genre is very adversarial—in effect, the players are trying to solve the puzzle that is the facility. Setting up a strict, all-encompassing structure of rules protects everyone at the table from accusations of pulling things out of thin air. To be fair, I tried to make it as fun as possible for everyone involved, so while the GM’s building facilities and working out missions, he gets to roll dice and move poker chips around. I suppose you could use stones, or unused dice, or some other marker. I just have a whole lot of poker chips.
Despite that design philosophy, I still wanted to leave as much detail as possible up to the players. Hence, while the rules describe what happened on one level, it’s up to the folks around the table to work out what that means in the context of the story being told. Being Noticed is a rules-thing, but all it means is that you’ve got a very short window of time before people start shooting. How that plays out in the actual story of the operation is up to the players and GM, as it should be. I deliberately left the whole thorny issue of “narrative authority” loose and fuzzy, because I see BLACK SEVEN as a fairly casual game, and thus it should accommodate folks like Tamsyn, who wants to narrate how cool her character is on a success alongside those like Danny, who wants to sit back and let the GM (or the other players) tell him what cool things happened.
I’m particularly happy with two sections in BLACK SEVEN. The first is the aforementioned facility design system. Each mission is broken down into a number of milestones, then each milestone’s attached to a facility. Each facility has areas with guards to take out, computers to hack, and security to avoid. Normally, one chip buys one area. To mix things up, the GM can also spend a chip to add a Feature—maybe the area’s protected by state-of-the-art security drones, or the sentries are in a running firefight with a third party, or the cops will show up in a set time, or the whole place is wired to blow. Each one applies different rules to that area, and the players don’t know what an area holds until they arrive.
The other is the options in the back. Simple, easy rules for adding cybernetics and psionic powers to the game, that I hope others will use as a template for their own hacks. Each one adds options for the players—cybernetic enhancements let an Agent re-roll failed actions, as long as she’s got Power available. Psi powers let each Agent break the rules in a specific way, but at the cost of Hits. But it’s not just the Agents who get new toys to play with: the GM can include Features like Biomagnetic Feedback Loops, Ghosts in the Machine, Masterminds, and Psi Dampeners.
BLACK SEVEN also exists as an experiment in self-publishing. Working entirely off my own back, with only myself to blame—no co-collaborators, no developers, and no artists—I’ve been able to bring an RPG to market in under a month. Seven years ago, it would have languished on a blog. Now, it’s available to the world. In addition to a fully bookmarked and linked PDF, BLACK SEVEN’s download contains the sample adventure as a separate document, copies of all of the record sheets, and the rulebook and adventure in ePub format. I’ve also released the game under a Creative Commons licence, because a small-press game can only benefit from people sharing it.
Looking at BLACK SEVEN now, it’s what I wanted to make when I first scribbled down some notes. That’s a given. But taking the long view, it’s the game I didn’t know how to write back in 2004. I don’t think I’d fully recognise it, were I to read it back then. But that’s what comes of learning.
The first book isn’t the end. I’ve got a couple more ready-to-play missions in mind, along with a more in-depth look at cyberpunk stealth-action gaming, because I’m a personal fan of the genre. After that, who knows? And given the Creative Commons licence, I’m more than happy to host or link to other people’s interpretations of the game on zeropointinformation.com. This is just the start.
The Black Seven RPG is available now at the Flames Rising RPGNow Shop.