An Endzeitgeist.com review
Night's Black Agents, as a hardcover, is a massive 232 page-book, with 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, which leaves us with 227 pages of content - so let's take a look!
Wait for a second - before we do: Yes, this means I'm branching out into GUMSHOE, at least occasionally. Why? Well, I actually got Night's Black Agents as a present from a friend of mine (thanks, Paco!) and had been playing with it for quite some time. Before I get into the nit and grit, let's start with a brief discussion of GUMSHOE, the engine of this RPG.
The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative horror game - and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system's engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects...well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game all about the brains, less about the brawns.
The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term "ability" here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Data Recovery, Law - you get the idea. Now here's the clincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You're one of the best in the field - auto-success. I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource - you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the director (or GM) has a different task, as do authors - the structure must, by virtue of the game's design, provide multiple ways towards the end. expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations - you can't provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)
There also are general abilities, which follow different rules that allow for failure. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest. Points to buy abilities from depend, btw., on group-size. General abilities contain Athletics, Disguise, Driving, Hand-to-Hand, Shooting...and, obviously Health and Stability. So yes, that's about it. No, seriously - investigative and general abilities. that's it. Simple, right? The more dice you spend, the higher is your chance of success. Cooperation between characters is still an option and groups may piggyback on the best character's action by spending less points.
So, this would be the basic set-up. Now, as you can glean from the set-up, combat is not nearly as complex or diverse as in PFRPG or 13th Age and indeed, the system lends itself to a higher lethality-level. There is also an evident problem for anyone familiar with similar set-ups: Essentially, the set-up boils down to resource-management, which means spreading abilities etc. makes sense. Inexperienced players may end up sans points in their key competences right in the middle of an investigation. This is intentional, mind you, and part of the challenge - each spent should be carefully considered. Agents do not exist in solitude - hence, in most game-styles, there are sources of stability that help you from going off the deep end - from causes to persons, these are your anchor in the world, what keeps the character sane - their sources of stability.
So that's the vanilla set-up of GUMSHOE. Night's Black Agents, to me, has one of the best, if not the best version of the GUMSHOE-engine, though - at least for any game that is at least slightly pulpy. The book sports so-called thriller combat rules, which allow for the stunts we all know and love from the spy genre's fiction and it also offers "cherries." 8 points in a given ability unlock the cherry, which means you get something awesome: You're either less ridiculously easy to hit with guns, get a wild-card die-result you can substitute for another roll, automatically bypass most doors sans test...yes, this would be iconic and interesting specialization options, which coincidentally also help with the spread-problem.
Design-wise, it should also be noted that Night's Black Agents is one of the smartest, most professional games you can get for its focus: What do i mean by that? We ALL have different concepts of what spy thrillers should be like - gritty and psychological? Far-out and action-packed? Well, this book offers different game-modes, which handy glyphs denote. These game-modes represent different approaches to the genre and play in vastly different ways: "Burn" focuses on the psychological ramifications of spy-work and damage. While the default of Night's Black Agents is a Bourne Identity-like cinematic set-up, "Dust" allows for gritty, lethal, lo-fi rules that would also gel perfectly well with noir-aesthetics. "Mirror" would be the ultimate game of shifting alliances, betrayal and trust - intended only for mature groups, here betrayal among players and contacts, constantly shifting allegiances and the like generate a feeling of paranoia. Finally, "Stakes" is probably most in line with classic James Bond - it's the high-risk "In service of a higher cause" type of gameplay. All of these are supported, and, to a degree, they can be combined by a capable director. The result being that this is not a simple monolithic rules-set, but one that has a massive array of support for table-variation built into its very foundation.
EVERY other game-system I know (and quite a few designers) should take a careful look at this design-principle - here, we have support for A LOT of table variations and playstyles. And yes, this extends throughout the whole game's presentation, from chases to the primary antagonists.
Which brings me to the next point: When I got this book from Paco, I wasn't that thrilled - As I've been rambling on about time and again, I have VERY specific notions of what vampires should be. Well, the primary antagonists of Night's Black Agents, the conspiracy of vampires the agents face, is nothing less than brilliant in the way that it extends this modularity to the very concept of vampires: Instead of providing a monolithic hostile force that was bound to limit and disappoint some groups, we get a vast toolkit for your own vampire customization, with abilities marked with handy glyphs: Whether due to a mutation of the Marburg V-virus, as descendants of Dracula's lineage, supernatural creatures or even aliens, a plethora of vampiric themes is supported...yes, including the classic "servants of hell"-trope. And, once again, options are provided without making the material presented prescriptive in any shape, way or form. Sample characters can be found here to highlight the potential of the adversaries and infection/becoming a vampire also has a different set of conditions. Perhaps you're one of the weirdo GMs like yours truly and want something far-out? Well, from Camazotz to the Lamia, quite an array of kind-of vampiric adversaries are provided for your convenience.
Combat, btw., is significantly more rewarding here than you'd think - the new cherries and various options, from expert martial arts to feinting mean that this book's combat-section can be considered the most refined among GUMSHOE games. Special tag-team benefits allow btw. fr the combination of abilities for rather intriguing effects. The book also sports several hazards and how to deal with them in the context of the rules -from falling to acid to toxins, there is enough out there to kill your agents..or drive them mad. A significant collection of stability-loss samples and concise rules for mental illness, PTSD and the like, are provided - and yes, in mirror games, multiple personality disorder may turn you into your own adversary.
Directors also may benefit from the easy means f tracking "heat", i.e. the level by which your agents are hunted. Tools of the trade, both subtle and of the flamethrower-variant and tricks of the trade, from covert networks to safe houses - there is a lot going on here - and even with the relatively broad strokes I'm painting with here, I have no true means of covering the whole book sans bloating the review. So, I'll instead comment on some aspects.
The advice to players-section is gold. Yes, you can win. Yes, something horrible is gonna happen - this is a horror game. Get an exit strategy...this short section should be something featured in any investigative roleplaying game - it also helps players succeed and not be stumped. (Contrary to popular myth, GUMSHOE does lead to dead-ends once in a while - not via investigative abilities failing, but due to the human factor...and that is a good thing, as it makes the final triumph sweeter!)
Directors of the game can officially start grinning, since at this point, it is time for me to tell you about another great aspect of this book: Beyond the excessive modularity of the rules presented, the book acknowledges something: Investigations are HARD. No, seriously. Any GM of any game who has ever tried to write one will have come to this conclusion - much less speaking of a whole friggin' campaign! The solution, obviously, is to give the director the tools for the trade - and partially, the system's insistence of modularity, hard-coded into the very rules, already does that pretty well. But the narrative structuring of the frame-work still is an issue - so we get the downright genius Conspyramid. You have various levels, where you generate a flow-chart diagram of your own vampiric conspiracy...but beyond this, it's the advice that really matters. If, e.g., you follow Stoker's classic means of identifying vampires (or that from folklore), this will have repercussions on how your game works: Do they show on smart-phones and cameras? is a bite enough to doom you? Can vampirism be cured? If so, how? Only before or also after the transformation? The level of detail is staggering. Want more? What about a concise list of Europe's backstage intelligence agencies and military OPs as well as detailed information on criminal syndicates and the like? Quick and dirty city building, alongside concise and detailed examples provide glorious backdrops and advice on how to handle the grand game of spy-craft. On a meta-concern beyond individual design, advice on pacing and structuring of operations, pyramidal structures of antagonist motivations - the structuring advice provided here in not only great and valid within the frame-work of Night's Black Agents and reaches almost the level of a full-blown GM-advice book.
So, what about EVEN MORE modifications? Perhaps you don't like the vampire angle - no problem: The book has rules for straight, non-supernatural spygames. Or perhaps, you want gameplay with agents that also have supernatural abilities like remote viewing? Supported. The latter especially is interesting, since it offers plenty of support in conjunction with other GUMSHOE-products...nothing keeps you from re-designing that cthulhu-material, after all...
A brief and solid entry-scenario can also be found in this book, though that would be the one component where Night's Black Agents does not fare as well as other GUMSHOE-products - the scenario is solid, sure - but, as you'll see next week, there are better ones out there. A further reading list concludes the main text of the book.
The addenda contain exceedingly handy director-tracking sheets, worksheets for vampires and cities, operation sheets, an easy director-cheat-sheet of crucial rules, thriller chase summary cheat-sheet and rules, the same for thriller combat options, conspyramid-sheets to print/copy and use, ability summaries (also for refreshs), an agent record sheet, indices and a handy main index for navigation.
Editing and formatting are apex-level awesome - no significant glitches in a book of this size. Wow. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read 3-column standard - which I usually really don't like - in most of the cases, 3-columns render the page's visuals cluttered. not so here. In fact, due to the excessive modularity of the system provided, it actually works to the book's benefit as a structuring element here. The artwork ranges from somewhat comic-y (and less awesome than I've come to expect from Pelgrane Press) to the glorious style of the cover. Btw.: Quite a few non-gamer friends have commented on the cover artwork being absolutely stunning. I concur. The book's dead tree hardcover is a thing of beauty and if you intend to play this game, I certainly advise you getting it.
Now originally, I did not have the electronic version of Night's Black Agents - by now I do. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and symbols among the bookmarks for your convenience, making navigation very simple. The book also comes with an EPUB-version, a MOBI-version, Agent's Dossier, the first module from the Zalozhniy Quartet (review forthcoming) and the BETA 2-version of the Night's Black Agents Android App. There also are free resources to be downloaded online - scroll to the bottom of the review (at least on my homepage) for the link.
Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents is one damn impressive tome - the setting provided is concise and managed, in spite of my VERY STRONG opinion on vampires, to avoid annoying me. This book is all about options - it is a toolkit par excellence that does not force any playstyle on a given group, instead opening up a vast plethora of diverse choices and options for anyone to pursue. The rules are explained in a concise, easy to grasp manner and are so simple I managed to convey them to people who had never played RPGs before in less than 10 minutes. Granted, that's a strength of GUMSHOE as an engine.
However, beyond utilizing the strengths of the engine itself, this book resolves several crucial points of criticism with the engine underlying the setting - the diverse rules not only allow for different playstyles with different foci, it also mitigates some of the less inspired components of the engine by adding (optional) complexity that renders gameplay more diverse and ultimately, rewarding.
The single, biggest crucial strength of this book is that its modularity extends beyond the reach of its implied setting - in spite of the great presentation and concise rules, the concept of spies vs. vampires, to me, seemed rather monolithic; the issue of Cthulhu-games, if you will: You (kind of) know what to expect. Well, the beauty here lies in the options: You can easily combine this book with other GUMSHOE settings and systems. Want to go Cthulhu NOW with ToC? Get this. Want more combat edges and action in Esoterrorists? (Yup, review coming up!) Get this now.
The engine-tweaks introduced herein render this book an imho non-optional, massive toolkit for GUMSHOE that enriches ANY game based on the engine, not only the intended playstyle-verisimilitude. Which also deserves credit galore - the level of detail and support for the director should be taken as the level to which all games should aspire to.
Apart from the vast diversity of options (none of which are neglected or considered superior), the sheer attention to detail regarding the finer points of conspiracy-creation and the like retain their validity even beyond the confines of this game. Oh, and then there's massive array of supplemental material, the fact that you literally can derive so much awesomeness from this book. If you play GUMSHOE, any GUMSHOE game, and always felt like the engine had more to offer, then you should consider this a must-buy book. If the theme even remotely interests you, well, then this should be considered a unique and rewarding game to play. Night's Black Agents is, by any measure I apply, a superb game. My review may not reflect this 100%, but I tried VERY hard to pick this book apart - but quite frankly, there is nothing worth complaining about. Sure, its combat will never attain 13th Age's or PFRPG's level of complexity. But neither will those systems ever come close to the investigative caliber of this book.
If you're looking for a change of pace, for vampires in your GUMSHOE game, for a glorious investigative game, for a rules-expansion of the highest caliber, for any of the above virtues- then there's no way past this book.
My final verdict will be 5 stars + my seal of approval, accompanied by being tagged as an EZG Essential-book for GUMSHOE. Once I've reviewed enough books of the system, I will provide the corresponding Essentials-list.
[5 of 5 Stars!]