The Zalozhniy Quartet aims to bring to Night’s Black Agents what the core game lacks: something that’s ready to run without too much preptwork. Of course, everything is relative, and Zalozhniy Quartet still retains some of the “toolkit” mentality of the core game event though it is a campaign. This is, by and large, for the good, since the toolkit aspects here are very well done.
The campaign consists of four semi-independent parts, linked by a core background plot. The clever bit is that they can be played in any order; each one has multiple entry and exit point suggestions, some depending on PC actions and some on what the GM wants to do next. The links are very well done, giving the GM lots of ways and means to build the story… assuming he/she has read the thing multiple times; it’s a somewhat complex story with lots of moving parts, so quite a bit of prepwork (as in “reading and re-reading”) is needed here. The campaign also follows the core game’s line in not precisely defining what the vampires are, that is still left up to the GM,
Plotwise, the campaign contains an extremely nice mixture of moods and subgenres. As presented in the book (remember that the order is not set in stone), the first part, “The Zalozhniy Sanction”, has the PCs trace some gun runners in Odessa. Predictably, things are not quite what they seem and things will most likely go south, in a big way. This is an “action movie” segment, mostly. Next up (in book order) is “Out of the House of Ashes”, which involves old-world spooks and social skills – if someone pulls a gun here, things have gone very, very wrong. It’s a huge change of pace from the previous part.
The third part is “The Boxmen”, which is a heist story. The PCs will need to figure out how to get access to the contents of a Swiss bank vault. Cue Ocean’s Eleven (or maybe some other movies, if the PCs try for brute force). Lots and lots of room for PC (and player) tactics and planning here.
Last is “Treason in the Blood”, which has the closest ties to the background plot, and involves ancient plans (which the PCs will hopefully disrupt). It’s best suited as the final “endgame” scenario, but as noted it doesn’t need to be that. As a slight spoiler: like many spy stories, the background “big plot” has ties to the old infamous Philby spy ring in Cambridge. The link is so unconventional, however, that mentioning it here isn’t much of a spoiler at all.
All in all, I very much liked this campaign. The flexible structure is very cleverly done, and the individual parts all showcase a somewhat different subgenre of the game (and need very different approaches from the players). In addition, the four parts are only loosely connected, so they should work very nicely as standalone “one-shots” also. Excellent stuff.
Night’s Black Agents is a “Vampire Spy Thriller” game by Kenneth Hite, based on Robin D. Laws’ “Gumshoe” game system (best known from its “Trail of Cthulhu” incarnation). The main innovation there was the separating of character skills into “investigative” and “general” skills, which work quite differently – while “general” skills work in a somewhat traditional fashion, “investigative” skills always work. There is no danger of you botching a critical investigation roll and losing all access to a critical game clue, which has traditionally been a problem in Cthulhu games (and suchlike). Robin realized that certain types of rolls needed to always succeed or the game would grind to a halt, and that in practice GMs were fudging them to always work anyway – so why roll in the first place? While “Night’s Black Agents” is more an action move game than an investigation game, there’s enough of that to make Gumshoe a good fit as a rules system.
The game itself takes cues from the “Bourne Trilogy” series of movies (among many others), posing the players as highly trained (ex)operatives of the now-defunct Cold War; people with interesting and usually shady talent portfolios now working either freelance or for some GM-specified party. The trick here is that in the basic setup, the PCs have discovered that their employers are actually vampires. And no, not the “glitters in the dark and tries to look sexy” variety. The “rip your throat out and kill your family too” type.
Outside that basic setup, this is a toolkit, not a ready-to-run game. The game doesn’t even lock down what the “vampires” in your game actually are, though it gives lots of suggestions. They could be “traditional” vampires, they could be extradimensional parasites, they could be (space) aliens…. up to the GM. While this does pose more work the GM, in the end it means that your players will have very little idea of what to actually expect, and may find their preconceptions of what “vampires” are to be more of a hindrance than an asset. The GM is also given some tools to model the whole “vampiric conspiracy” in an abstract way, while planning what to hit the PCs with next. The default story has the PCs uncover more and more of said conspiracy until a climactic confrontation with the main “bad guys” – but again, up to the GM,
So, it’s a toolkit for creating games which mimic action movies (like the Bourne ones), with some supernatural elements thrown into the mix. The default game mode goes for cinematic action rather than gritty realism, but the game provides many extra modes which can be used to tweak the game genre in a freeform fashion: “Burn” gives some extra rules for modeling psychological damage, “Dust” pushes things more in the gritty realism direction, “Mirror” emphasizes double-crosses and hidden agendas, and “Stakes” gives the PCs personal motivations (intended to escalate drama). The assumption is that many of these will be used at once, as the GM sees fit.
It’s a very neat little game, at least based on reading it; whether of not the rules system works as intended in practice is something that would need playtest to figure out. The layout is clean and modern, the art is on the good side of things, and the writing is good. Only a few minor negatives come to mind. First off, the organization of the book isn’t quite perfect, in many places rules systems and rules-specific terms are referenced before they are explained in any way, making for at times confusing reading for people not familiar with Gumshoe. Secondly, this is a toolkit, which mean that there is very little here that a GM can use without significant prep time. For some, that may be a turn-off.
Masters of Jade is one of the last books published for the 2nd edition Exalted game line. Many of the writers are people who are involved with the 3rd edition, here they present their view of the Guild – and it’s a very interesting one. While there is some very small overlap with the 1st edition “Manacle and Coin” book, this is mostly a very different viewpoint. The book is split into three main sections. The first one describes the Guild all over Creation (including a creation story for it), It’s interesting stuff, but nothing all that extraordinary. It’s the second part that is most interesting: details of how the Guild deals with supernatural creatures, including Solars. That’s something that the 1st edition book mostly just ignored: how do you form a huge organization that’s not vulnerable to supernatural mind control and other nasty tricks that Exalts and other powerful creatures may throw at them? The answer lies in many directions, but the main point is huge size, combined with very loose organization. It’s very hard to decapitate the Guild; it’s not trivial to even figure out what the leadership structure looks like. Sure, a Solar may gain control of one or two major movers and shakers (after much effort tracking them down), but that won’t give them the Guild on a platter. It may result in profit, sure, but the Guild can handle that. Alongside that, the Guild handles powerful figures much the way any large semi-criminal organization would: bribes, flattery, misdirection, threats…. whatever works. It’s a very interesting treatment of the subject.
The book winds up with a rules subsystem to handle organizations, “The Creation-Ruling Mandate”. This is the part of the book I can least comment on, since I have zero idea of how well this works based on just a read-through. I like the fact that the book includes rules for modeling big stuff like this, the game doesn’t have anything like that at the moment (most of the subsystems in the Exalted 2nd edition core books are… a bit broken). I’m not sure this is anything anyone will ever use, though, with 3rd edition heading our way. Hard to say.
Most of the book is rules-free, and as such works fine in any edition. I liked what the writers did with the Guild here, and especially liked the stuff about “big organization vs powerful supernaturals”.
From Hell’s Heart concludes the “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and does it with a style consistent with the earlier installations. In other words, it’s pretty good, and forms a satisfying conclusion to the story – though one with lots of continuation possibilities if needs be.
With their previous nemesis dead or at least beaten, the PCs should now be poised to step into a leadership role in the Shackles. About time, too, since there is now a huge fleet sailing in their direction, with the intent of getting rid of the “pirate menace” once and for good. If things go the way they are most likely to go, the adventure path will culminate with an epic-scale naval battle which will decide the fate of the region (and the PCs) once and for all. While it’s expected that the PCs (and their allies) win the day, it’s always possible that it’s not their day. In this case, the PCs may have to fleet the Shackles, maybe for good.
While there isn’t anything overly clever here, it does form a fitting culmination of the story. Overall, I’ve liked “Skull & Shackles” quite a bit, it seems like a nice balance of sandboxy piracy and loosely connected plots and set pieces. This based on reading, of course, these things may work very differently in actual play.
The Adamantine Arrow is a splatbook for the militant “Adamantine Arrow” order, one of the so-called “Pentacle Orders”. It’s pretty standard stuff; it describes the history of the order and the current reality, and then goes on to detail everyday life as member of the order, along with a pile of specialized spells and artifacts that the Arrows like to use. As a sourcebook of character enhancements and ideas for a player of an Arrow it’s probably quite useful, and it does contain quite a few plot hooks and story ideas centered around the faction.
However, I didn’t like it all that much. Part of that is the writing style (it’s a bit dry), but the larger part has to do with the content itself. This book is from the early days of the game line, when they really pushed the Atlantis creation myth, and here it shows. Instead of having Atlantis be a vague and mysterious thing which may or may not have even existed at any point (and may have been something very strange), here it’s presented as a matter-of-fact history. While some nods are given to the “mages are different around the world” thing, most things are still presented in the light of a strictly defined and static Atlantean history and uniculture. This annoys me, on many levels. The whole Atlantean uniculture -thing is, in my mind, the single biggest flaw in the new Mage. Happily they tried to distance themselves from it in later books in the game line, but here it’s very much in your face.
The other thing here is somewhat more subtle: the Arrows are, well, somewhat boring. They’re warriors, and like warriors in most games, there’s a certain lack of depth to the concepts available. To their credit the writers do try to spice things up, but in the end it’s a book about the “fighters” of the Mage game line. Compared to an Order like the Guardians of the Veil, for example, these guys are plain vanilla.
Just got my Kickstarter backer (preliminary) copy of the Werewolf the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition PDF. I think I’ll wait until I get the physical book (which will be a monster) to actually read the thing, but based on a quick browse: looks fantastic. Like the V20 book, this contains an updated version of the core game plus lots and lots of extras (in this case, the extras include Umbra, the Wyrm, the Lost Tribes, and lots besides). It’s an all-in-one updated version of the original game, with rules updated to fix the flaws people have identified over the years.
There’s also a pile of support books incoming, including Tribebook: White Howlers and other fun stuff. Looks like good times for fans of the original Werewolf.
Points to Onyx Path for a very well-optimized PDF, by the way. It’s only 85 megabytes (which isn’t bad for a 555-page full-color book) and it renders fast – should be easily readable on a tablet despite being a huge book. Good job, guys.
Before this book, the information available on the gods of the Warhammer world (excepting the Chaos gods) has been pretty sparse. The core book had some basic details. but nowhere enough to give interesting detail to players wanting to play priests. Like the earlier “Tome of Sorcery” (which expanded the magic orders) and “Tome of Corruption” (which expanded the Chaos cults and gods), Tome of Salvation aims to fill in the missing bits for the “normal” gods of the Old World. Also like those earlier tomes, it succeeds wonderfully; this is a near-essential resource for Warhammer priestly types.
The book gives you pretty much everything you’d expect or need. You get detailed descriptions of the internals of the various cults (i.e. churches of the various gods), and there are also long sections on things like normal daily life as a priest, why extremist cults form and how they work, the religious holiday calendar, the life of a holy warrior or an inquisitor… in short, a ton of stuff. Since religion and daily life is so intertwined in the Old World, much of this is also nice background color for non-priest characters (who also typically believe in some god) and for the GM in making his/her world come alive. Things like religious holidays are wonderful things to throw into the mix on a regular basis, especially since they are far from standardized. The PCs might walk into a small village busy with yet another religious festival… and only slowly come to realize that it’s no religion they are familiar with. Together with the fact that a god might be worshiped in very different ways depending on where you are, this makes for great plot material and general “world color”.
Like the previous “Tome” books, this is one of the important books in the game line. Great work from the authors.
The Price of Infamy is the next-to-last portion of the piratical Skull & Shackles adventure path. It follows the high quality of the previous episodes, making this a fantastic adventure path (at least so far).
Events up to now have left the PCs with their own (fortified) island, and a powerful enemy with a grudge. Combine these two, and you get an invasion fleet header for the PC’s home base. Cue desperate scrambling in order to gather up enough of a defensive force to win the naval battle. Lots of diplomacy and use of past contacts is needed here, unless the PCs have somehow managed to gather a sizable fleet for themselves before this. The naval battle itself is handled by an abstract rule set, no idea how well it works in practice but the idea itself is good: resolve the “large scale “action with mass (naval) combat rules, and then put the spotlight on the PCs and their melee with the enemy fleet leaders. It sounds like fun, in any case.
After this is dealt with, the second half of the module deals with the PCs’ reprisal attack on the enemy’s home base. This is a more traditional affair, made a bit more interesting with the introduction of certain traitorous parties and and the fact that the way the PCs approach the raid will have a huge effect. The default assumption is that the PCs will try for a commando-style raid, but they are of course free to go for an overt mass assault instead (which is likely to be an uphill slog for them).
It’s a fun-sounding episode to a very entertaining story. As before, there are assumptions about what the PCs will do, but the GM is given some tools to handle them doing something totally different. For example, while it’s a given that an attacking fleet is coming for them, how they prepare is up to the PCs. It’s assumed that they will want to deal with their old enemy once and for all after this, but if they elect to do something else the GM can just save the second half for later (or not run it at all, in some cases). It’s more constrained in some ways than the earlier portions of the story, but it’s not a railroad either.
Murder’s Mark is a standalone Pathfinder module featuring ethnic tensions and a murder mystery set (mostly) in a traveling circus. Not quite your standard D&D fare, in other words. Written by Jim Groves, it features a lot of investigation and social encounters (as opposed to endless combat encounters versus monsters of the week). In my view, this is a very good thing.
The story is set at the Umbra Carnival, a traveling circus largely populated by Golarion’s gypsy drop-ins, the Varisians. The circus rolls into a small fishing village, sets itself up, and and runs up against the usual prejudices against “those thieving and shifty Varisians”. This time, however, there is a more serious element: someone is murdering visitors at the Carnival, and the “gypsies” are naturally enough the first to get the blame. The local law-person wants the case solved as fast as possible, so enter the PCs in the role of investigators (their own motivations for getting involved are left open here, which makes sense). Naturally enough events escalate, and the PCs quickly have their hands full with trying to figure out the real culprit before the mob chooses and punishes a suitable “perpetrator” for them.
It’s a nice little set piece, and easy enough to drop in the middle of an existing campaign. It’s also refreshingly free of dungeon crawling, which is a nice change. Of course, since it has a plot and is, essentially, a murder mystery, I’m sure there are multiple ways the PCs might short-circuit everything with suitable magic – though the fact that this is meant for low-level characters reduces that danger a bit.
When the new World of Darkness core book came out years ago, one of the small bits that caught people’s fancy was the initial fiction bit, detailing a weird past history with clockwork angels and a “God-Machine”. Originally it was just intended as a throwaway “weird bit” to highlight the by-design unpredictability of the new WoD, but ever since White Wolf has been getting queries about expanding that bit of fiction. Well, now they have, and they are also working on building a new game campaign based around the “God-Machine” mythos. In addition, there are rumors that the upcoming new Demon game will somehow be connected, but that’s a big unknown. Of course, when I say “White Wolf” here I actually mean “Onyx Path”, which is the new home of the old White Wolf roleplaying stuff.
Anyway, the God-Machine Chronicle fiction anthology is the first step. It collects a bunch of new WoD fiction from the various game books (including the original story), and adds a big pile of brand-new fiction. The stories are all quite short, but mostly that works in their favor. Horror tales often are more effective the more compact they are, and these certainly are compact… and most work quite well, with the best tales being very imaginative and creepy. I found it to be an excellent read, and a nice collection of “weird horror” tales. There’s little to no specific “World of Darkness” bits here, no old tropes you can easily latch onto.
So… do we finally get some information about the God-Machine? No, we don’t. Not really. We get bits and pieces, many of them contradictory. It might not even exist, and if it does it might not have any interest in humanity. I like that just fine, too much specificity can be a death toll for the horror and vague sense of dread many of these tales project.
If you’ve tended to hate the fiction embedded in the (new) World of Darkness game books, this anthology is not for you (note that in my opinion the new WoD has much better embedded fiction than the old books did). For everyone else, this book is worth a read. The tales are quick reads, and there are a few nice gems in here.