And what kind of game is this? In a nutshell: in Night's Black Agents you can spend a point of your Preparation stat to have a flash bang grenade on you, even if you didn't before and had no idea you were headed into a firefight. It's that kind of game.
|I bought these sunglasses retroactively once I realized we were in Afghanistan|
It's Fast-moving In A Gamey Way And In An International Spy Story We Need That
GUMSHOE's spend-to-do-it system makes moving from scene to disparate scene (essential to the international espionage genre) mechanically interesting.
Like, consider this situation:
GM describes a target. PCs outline a plan and step one of their plan involves secretly flying to Istanbul.
In GUMSHOE, I go "Go ahead and spend a point to get a plane, but remember spending that point now means you won't have it later and you can't use 'Well Connected To People Who Have Planes' points later in the session..." which is an interesting choice to have to make.
If I ran it Call of Cthulhu/BRP style then I have two choices:
"Ok you automatically get a plane because it makes sense you'd be able to get one" (which is an ok GMing call, but not especially interesting mechanically and you just do it and move on and forget about it, maybe secretly deciding "Ok, now you owe Manuela a favor before she helps you again".)
"Roll to see if you can even get a plane" (which if they succeed, yay good, if they don't, well, they have to do something else but that having to choose some other plan is kinda arbitrary and they will find another plan but it won't necessarily be any more interesting and so the consequences of failure didn't make the game better.)
Now the Call of Cthulhu plane example above could be made interesting if there was a ticking time bomb situation ("Use your Credit Rating score to get a plane and if you don't you only have one day left and figure something else out") and that points up a genre difference:
In D&D or Call of Cthulhu, the thing that makes their probabilistic systems work so well is the assumption the PCs are under some kind of pressure. Often time pressure, but it could also be something like dwindling resources or just fear of getting killed if you don't kill the monster first. So what do you do? You think of a plan that puts the odds on your side, then roll. It's tense, it's exciting, it requires thought.
The spy genre does not work like that though. Quite often at the beginning of the mission the spy is under no obvious pressure. Failure isn't interesting here--can't stay at the fancy hotel? Oh well, stay at the cheap one. Pointless, pressureless leisure--at least in the beginning--is part of the genre. This leisure gives the protagonists time to build the world around them (see 3 below).
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Zero Dark Thirty the main character's not under any external pressure, really. It's just work. The worst that could happen if a resource is denied is if the GM rigged up a situation where if a plan doesn't work (failed probabilistic roll), the bad guys notice and change up.
Using GUMSHOE's nondiegetic-thinking-style spendy mechanic, you, in effect buy ease and choice at the beginning of the session and pay for it with desperation at the end of the game. Which is different from the all-desperation-all-the-time mechanics you want in an exploration-and-wonder-oriented genre.
Exploring... Vs Playing With...
For my players specifically:
In a made-up setting: getting to see what's hidden in it is fun. More fun than helping to write the fiction called "the setting" which they like mysterious and not-in-their-control. They want the slow revelation.
In the real world setting: getting to fuck with the real world is fun. Because they already know the setting--they live in it and hear about it every day. So the revelation that there's a really hot country called Australia that has giant jumping pocketbeasts is not something they need held back for dramatic effect. So a mechanic that suddenly makes an ASS (or whatever the Australians call their secret service) member your friend isn't a blow to an essential wonder and isolation you need to enjoy the game, it's a fun reminder that in this version of the familiar world the strange is always hidden behind the familiar.
Revelation vs Showdown
Ok most horror, sci fi, and fantasy stories ("adventure" stories broadly) are built on the idea of the revelation. Westerns, spy movies and kung fu movies ("action" stories broadly) are built on the showdown.
The revelation is the new awesome thing you get to see that vastly exceeds expectations. The space ship, the creature, the magic, the crazy city built from bells and beehives, etc.
The showdown is characters you already know about from the beginning finally confronting each other. John Malkovich is bad and smart and weird, Clint Eastwood is good and tough and clever, who'll win? Watch In The Line of Fire and find out...
Many stories incorporate both* but they pull in opposite directions, broadly speaking.
The revelation requires the players do not know about things before they show up. The less is known, the more of a revelation it is.
The showdown requires the players know all about things before they show up. The more is known, the more of a showdown it is.
D&D and Call of Cthulhu are naturally set up for The Revelation (exploration) and any Showdown requires the GM to do all the work building the threat. GUMSHOE is naturally set up for The Showdown and any Revelation requires the GM to do all the work, carefully hiding the fullness of the threat from the players.
Games relying mostly on Showdowns want the world to feel connected and, ultimately, knowable--everything is about you and your big fight coming up. Games relying on Revelation want the world to feel abstract and unknowable--everything beyond you is a mystery in the great beyond.
In the revelation story, the players are small and the world is large. In the showdown story, the players are large and the threat is large and the world is a backdrop.
In NBA's espionage version of the showdown, this backdrop is really just a kind of weapon the PCs have a certain amount of points to spend to design--like magic item creation or building an invention in a superhero game.
I get the feeling this is also related to Hard SF vs Sci Fantasy. When I hear SF is "about ideas" that usually implies "about the revelations" whereas when you hear its "just an adventure story with laser guns" that implies "about the showdown".
One more thing: just as having a Showdown-worthy NPC that matters is a perennial problem for D&D GMs that the game leaves them pretty much on their own about, my guess is making the vampire conspiracy really seem like a Revelation full of wonder is going to be a perennial problem for NBA GMs. I mean, in a game where you can use a stat to, in the middle of a fight, have totally already remembered to bring holy water, you got your work cut out for you.
Also--if you click that link at the top there are a few things I did to make the game more problem-solvey and a little less button-pushy.
*Noir and crime stories are often all about both: building to a confrontation with a known figure and revealing a hidden underworld at the same time. To see a story where the final showdown kinda lacks guts on account of it having been somewhat too obscured under an overall aesthetic of revelation, see the original-- and mostly excellent--original Sin City miniseries. When Roark is revealed we know who he is but we still don't know anything about why Marv confronting him will be interesting. To see the typical noir solution--having the villain there all along but only revealing they are the villain at the last minute--see The Maltese Falcon. To see one variation on it--having the villain front and center but only revealing the weird extent of their villainy at the end--see Chinatown.