An Endzeitgeist.com review
This epic 4-part mega-adventure/campaign for Night's Black Agents clocks in at 148 pages, 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, leaving us with 143 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This was moved up on my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy for the purposes of a critical and honest review.
All right, so this would be the first big Night's Black Agents-campaign released - and it ultimately is a release we needed. Why? Because NBA changes quite a significant amount of assumptions when compared to the more horror-centric iterations of the GUMSHOE-system, like the inspiring Esoterrorists. While I have A LOT of shadowrun-experience under my belt and while my fantasy and sci-fi adventures tend to end up on the complex side of things, I found myself, back when I got the base game, wondering how to capture a unique tone and theme. Note that this was before I had the superb Double Tap-expansion book. I was thus relatively excited to see this book - and take a look at Night's Black Agents as "intended", at a spy-epic.
Before we dive into the nit and grit of the modules/mega-adventure, I feel the need to address something, namely the thoroughly unique structure of this saga: The Zalozhniy Quartet features something that only very rarely works in the context of any given adventure: A dauntingly modular structure. Since the very nature of vampires is modular in Night's Black Agents, we obviously need to take these components into account - and the book does a superb job at doing just that: Whether you opt for the supernatural, mutant, damned or the alien angle, the saga works. So this would be the first modularity factor. The second, and more important one, pertains the facets of espionage gameplay - each of the 4 scenarios contained herein has a dauntingly different focus and if I didn't know it better, I'd seriously assume them to be written by different authors - from high-intrigue to full-blown action, the whole gamut of the genre is covered rather well.
Better yet, the overall module features two components I wholeheartedly endorse: For one, the content herein can easily be added to just about any conspyramid you could imagine, meaning that the content herein is important, but will not override the meta-plot planned for your campaign. Secondly, the modules contained herein can be played in any order, with the frame-narrative and knowledge gleaned being modified for the respective sequence chosen, though personally, I'd advise playing the books in the sequence depicted herein - to me, this looks like the most organic one, though the campaign finale for another sequence is one I personally prefer - but then again, this is so modular it supports actually utilizing all of the potential climaxes with minimal tweaking.
As far as supplemental material is concerned, we receive 6 pregens as well as 6 city maps of places visited - which is nice, but also the one weakness of the mega-adventure: While GUMSHOE is not particularly dependent on tactical maps as far as roleplaying games are concerned, this does sport a few encounters that could have benefited from more map material - I will explicitly note those instances in my review below, though, admittedly, a cursory google-search does net plans to use, so overall, this is mostly a non-issue.
And this would be just about as far as I can go sans diving deeply into SPOILERS. Potential agents should jump to the conclusion right now - you don't want to spoil this one for yourself.
All right, only directors left? Great! Few crime syndicates evoke the same level of dread as the Lisky Bratva, a brotherhood of the Russian mafiya, here guided the vor (which roughly translates to thief-in-law or thief-who-obeys-the-code) Josef Lisky, who has spent most of his 70 year-life guiding the criminal organization from the confines of his prison cell. Now, though, "Uncle Joe" is free and commands a significant array of criminal assets, the most important of which would arguably be Dr. G.D. Dorjiev, who, unlike his vor, is best characterized as a cruel attack dog - and as the Lisky Bratva's resident necromancer...and their source for the eponymous Zalozhniy, who may well be the most awesome creatures that so far have been introduced by Night's Black Agents.
What are the Zalozhniy? Well, they are creatures that have perished at an unnatural time, creatures that literally should not be, being wrong on a fundamental level. Having lost their time of death, they are out of sync with time itself and generate an odd distortion field that can be used to receive a last chance warning for their impending assault. Ina stroke of sheer genius, these powerful creatures gain Athletics or Health whenever they manage to have a person die in an accident. The time distortion created by these nigh-unkillable creatures (each of which must be defeated by bringing the ordained death to them, meaning that players will need to do some legwork...) has been exploited by Dorjiev - the necromancer is unkillable, as he's hidden his own death in their time-distortion, meaning he'll be a lethal and truly astounding recurring foe throughout the adventures contained herein. Obviously, the assets at the beck and call of the Lisky Bratva warrant a proper adversary map for the director.
Aforementioned flexibility in running the sequence of the modules is also visualized in a handy diagram and, while a sequence is presumed, there is, indeed a metaplot to be found herein, one that centers on Harry St. John Philby, a spy and traitor working for British foreign office and his son, Kim Philby - both of which btw. are real life persons you can easily research to add even further detail to this campaign beyond the significant array already offered: Philby of Arabia and The Philby Conspiracy in particular provide interesting further angles for the directors among you that are as obsessive as yours truly. In the context f Night's Black Agents, the already exceedingly intriguing life of these persons receives a further angle, namely their knowledge of the Albedo and Nigredo, substances that can be used to create the Rubedo. If you're not familiar with alchemical lore, this adds basically a philosopher's stone angle to the whole operation - one that admittedly could conflict with your definitions of vampires...or rather, it could in a lesser book. In fact, the rather nebulous nature of these particular artifacts allow for the customization by the director to suit his/her respective needs within the grand scheme of the conspiracy, though personally, I feel that supernatural, damned and mutant vampires work best here.
All right, so the first module herein is the most straightforward of them and thus, imho, works best as a tour-de-force opener: The Zalozhniy Sanction begins with the agents working together with one Donald Caroll in Odessa as they break at his behalf into a warehouse of the Lisky Bratva - while Donald is assassinated by a zalozhniy, he manages to impart the location of his safehouse in Vienna upon the PCs, which is btw. considered neutral ground - a fact that becomes very important in the second module.
Well, as you may have gleaned from the above, things almost immediately go horribly sideways - which means this whole module pretty much becomes a vast sequence of chases and border-transitions. The small chases in particular should be mentioned here, as they offer a staggering array of detail for the director, with handy parameters listed by route, including default pursuers and high stress additions. Beyond the high stress sections on behalf of authorities both straight and corrupt, a variety of mundane and supernatural counter-measures employed by the Lisky Bratva means the agents will need to be on their a-game as they escape to Transnistria, where further progress requires the delicate framing of a particular star. Optional human-trafficking to be uncovered and extracting targets mean that burning and counter-burning, strategies and responses, render the high-octane chase back to Vienna truly exciting and gut-wrenching - the agents should breathe a significant sigh of relief once they've reached Vienna sans being torn to pieces or snipe'd away...
In Vienna, perhaps the most brainy of the modules herein take place - due to the neutral territory status "Out of the House of Ashes", which focuses on the extraction of Arkady Shevlenko, takes place. Shevlenko, suffering from a heart condition and bereft of almost all of his family, was the last handler of St. John Philby and is in town with a retinue, accompanied by his FSB handlers - and he may be the crucial piece missing for the agents. The problem is, though, that both the CIA and the Listky Bratva want the old man - and thus, an epic array of smoke and mirrors operations begin in Vienna, including one of the most awesome extractions I've ever seen in a published module.
Were I to go into the vast array of internally connected details here, I'd quite frankly require at least 3 full pages for this module alone. From a narrative point of view, the high intrigue, smart structure of this module means that it feels like a welcome break from the adrenaline-infused first adventure, emphasizing rather a constant sense of mounting tension that only few movies or novels of the genre manage to reach. However, in the end, Arkady is not destined to survive the ordeal - but his last remaining relative, Anna is. And yes, there is a sensible and fitting explanation why even the most powerful conspiracy has not broken the stubborn old man...
The third module, once again switches emphasis - "the Boxmen" is a saga most in line with Mission Impossible, suffused with a healthy dose of sleuthing and researching the Swiss banker's family, the Montavons, whose vault hides something the PCs require - with the saga's modularity determining the exact nature of what there is to be to unearth. Alas, the PCs are not the only ones planning a heist for the legendary Koernersbank - there are high-class thieves that may provide to be allies, foils, or, more likely, both. Recovering the legendary Albedo from the vault, however, just may end with the item being stolen. Oh, have I mentioned he once again gloriously-detailed chase-rules, hot lead options and the level of detail provided here? Basically, this module can be considered to be a middle ground between the former two parts of the quartet, a blend of investigation and action...and the concise planning of the heist itself is awesome, modular and problem-focused - love it! With one caveat, though: The bank's floor-plans would have been exceedingly handy to have, since there is quite a high chance the agents will seek to acquire them.
The final of the 4 modules, "Treason in the Blood", could be best summed up as a more realistic James Bond meeting classic themes of pulp literature. Easily the most fantastic of the 4 modules, it takes place in Baghdad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia (see Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East if you require additional information on the area and its turbulent history), unearthing a plot of potentially global repercussions, as the vampiric conspiracy is getting ready for taking control of the Middle East via a plan most devious - from a mysterious woman calling herself "Katun" (which roughly translates to "Queen") living in a mansion in Cyprus to finding what once was St. John Philby in the middle of the desert to a brutal check-mate situation and the James Bond-worthy climax (featuring a Camazotz), this chapter is by far the most fantastic, though one scene, set in the Mukhabarat Archive in Beirut, would certainly have benefited from a proper map. It should be noted that this one's end-game encounter (the one you usually only run if the module's the last of the 4) is particularly cinematic - and indeed, these climaxes are so cool, I'd encourage the respective directors out there to do the minor work and incorporate all of them in the module - they all are exceedingly gratifying and sport a level of palpable tension that feels like you could cut it.
Editing and formatting are superb - I noticed no glitches of any importance in this epic tome. Layout adheres to a 2-column b/w-standard that's printer-friendly and the pdf comes thankfully fully bookmarked for your convenience. The b/w-artworks provided are excellent and the cartography shows realistic city plans, though buildings and smaller locales could have used some map support. I have the softcover print edition and encourage you getting that one: Not only does it use high-quality, glossy paper, this one is definitely a book that deserves a place of honor among your books.
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and Kenneth Hite have crafted a truly epic, astounding campaign, one that defined, for me, the massive difference in themes of Night's Black Agents versus the more horror-themed GUMSHOE-games; to me, this did a superb job in establishing a truly unique identity regarding what's at stake, how modules run and how the rules make sense in practice and interact. The thoroughly modular structure of this campaign is, to me as a designer, perhaps the most impressive component of this saga - seeing how most D&D/d20/PFRPG APs fail to retain a perfect level of consistency in a linear campaign, maintaining such in a modular campaign should be considered to be all the more impressive on a meta-side.
But more importantly than me gushing about the modularity and meta-structure of this book is one simple fact: This reads better than most novels on the topic I've recently read (with Ian McEwan's predictable, bland Sweet Tooth being a sad all time low for his books...but I digress) and, more importantly, it PLAYS even better. Add to that the fact that the Zalozhniy rank among my favorite monsters, regardless of system, and you get a truly superb campaign that btw. also works perfectly in conjunction with the introductory s(entries)-scenario. If you're a director who is new to Night's Black Agents, make sure to pick this one up - its unique pacing, variety and themes made me more cognizant of the unique themes and playstyle Night's Black Agents can support.
Being one truly amazing campaign, I wholeheartedly believe that even non-GUMSHOE GMs can benefit from reading this, learning the structure and scavenging details, set-ups and themes. I truly believe this mega-adventure made me a more versatile director/GM - and not many modules these days manage to achieve that. My final verdict will hence clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, my only complaint remaining that this could have used a tad more maps.