Examining Agents of Oblivion: How Real is Too Real?
Let’s talk (surprise) about Agents of Oblivion for a few. When I first approached it, I wanted it to have a very loose, sandbox style feel to the whole thing and people have responded positively and some folks have been a bit bewildered with why it works. The answer is simple, though not obvious. The slight-of-hand is presenting a solid core set of rules riffing off of what’s in both our previous products and what’s in the core system (in this case, Savage Worlds and Savage Worlds Deluxe). There is tightly tested set of rules which look good on paper and play well because we’ve banged them around so much that we’ve worked all the kinks out of them. There are a lot of moving parts, however, if properly finessed, they look simple.
Let’s take kitting out an agent, for example. While Resource Points seem pretty obvious at first glance (and the name was there from the beginning), I came up with a number of iterations which we then proceeded to test out. One of the first ones did exactly what we wanted them to do, but they did so at the expense of playability. Well, let me clarify. They required more of a front-loading investment and, due to their variable nature, it wasn’t really possible to create a set of standardized loadouts, there were too many. It was a case of customization run amok. While a small subset of people would’ve been fine with them (and, to be honest, I thought I was fine with them as well), too many people found they slowed down an otherwise fast game. However, Resource Points are essential currency in a game where spies have gadgets and gizmos and need these sorts of things, especially for a campaign. The trick was to distill them down into a palatable form. I realized it was more about how people expended the currency than for there to be a great disparity between the number of Resource Points available to each agent. Making it a more precious commodity, as we eventually did, made people really pay attention to their points and allocate them to things generally doing one of two things, either
1) playing to the agent’s strengths
2) shoring up a perceived (or actual) shortcoming of the agent in question.
In point 1, if a player made a sneaky type of agent, he’d throw on things like silencers to his pistol (and would rarely kit out with any sort of long arm), get silencers, get smoke bombs, and the like. He’d build upon the things to really drive the point home he was a stealth dude. There is a lot of play room within the “sneaky agent archetype”. I might get a guy with a ninja suit and slumber grenades while you might opt to get some training in Silent Kill and snap necks with wild abandon. There is room and diversity for both types even within the same team.
In point 2, you have the player who wants to be ready for anything. The real world (yes, I’m finally touching upon the titular title of today’s discussion) doesn’t usually give us the opportunity to be ready for anything. Agents of Oblivion does. This player may hold back a few Resource Points for field reqs, he may take skill chips for additional flex, and may opt to take a few things he doesn’t innately possess, maybe a Relic (if he doesn’t have Arcane Training) or a variety of rounds so he can plug anything which bumps not only in the night, but in his general direction.
This is satisfactory for a lot of folks on a lot of levels and when the players get to kit out their agents, I see these sick grins cross their face as they gleefully begin to skim the pages to see what they can get. This is akin to unwrapping a present on the night before Christmas or snaking some Halloween candy before the shadow of the first trick-or-treater ever darkens your door. Is there a time investment? Certainly. It’s mitigated by the inclusion of standard loadouts which you can immediately jot down before moving to get your game on, the Director’s discretion, or the fun you can have tricking out your stuff to serve for your game. Timing is everything here, however. Introducing the loadout phase after the mission briefing is very important as the players are no longer players at this point in the game (which is no longer a game, but a mission) and usually talk to the other agents on the mission about what they should take and who gets what. Though it’s team building, it’s not adversarial. It’s not the players against the Director. It’s the agents against the mission and the Director is on their side. (Hey, he’s giving away free stuff, so he can’t be all bad. Right?) . Seeing time and again people getting immersed in this phase far more than I thought they would (read that as “much as I like to”) is gratifying and satisfying. Getting reports from the field of other Directors experiencing the same sort of thing is all sorts of fantastic drenched in awesome sauce!
Now after that “HURRAY!” moment, you’d expect me to sign off, but I’m going to go a little bit deeper down the rabbit hole and get to what’s real. Someone wrote the other day about “this particular part of the game not being true to the spy genre and being not that satisfying”. Now, he did say he thought the game was really good and looked to be enjoyable, just that he preferred handwaving this sort of thing as he is not a master spy and he wouldn’t no how to kit out. The latter is a valid point. Few master spies would probably play a spy game. I imagine they’re playing World of Warcraft or are in some Fantasy Football league or are off saving the world. What do I know? Maybe they’re all in a sub off the coast of Argentina playing Top Secret right now. The thing is if you handwave the spy stuff, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities for both immersion and dramatic tension, something we’ll explore more on the morrow.
Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!
Having read the rules and playing AoO once, I don’t agree with the idea of it not being true to the spy genre due to lack of preparedness (of course, if that’s a concern, there’s always the McGyver Edge…). I definitely don’t think that PC’s in the game are poor on resources. I found quite the opposite; PC’s are “front-loaded” extremely well compared to other settings. The Bournes and the Bonds in the genre are extraordinary, almost superhero-level characters (Heroic or Legendary at least in game terms), and something a character in AoO may, perhaps, strive towards being.