Protagonists cut off from the real world. Men and women forced into violence to survive. Agents of powers that skulk in shadow. Are they spies or vampires? Both types of characters share a startling amount of similarities. The two genres seem tailor made for each other. Ken Hite brings them together in his newest RPG, Night’s Black Agents. But be aware, it’s not vampire spies. It’s spies vs. vampires.While playing vampires in RPGs has been extremely popular over the past 20 years or so, this one is about putting stakes in hearts and walking away while the bloodsucker burns in the sun.
The PDF is full color and laid out in a very modern style. The game includes several sidebar callouts explaining why certain rules work certain ways as well as giving examples of what happened during playtesting. The tone is intelligent yet conversational. The game is not afraid to cite influences in the text. The books ends with a discussion of sources that range from the literary to the cinematic to other games that inspired the design beyond the GUMSHOE rules. Popping in some of the DVDs recommended is a great way for players to be inspired for their characters.
The game casts the PCs as Jason Bourne style spies who stumble upon a vampire conspiracy. The PCs are expected to punch their way up the latter to the dread undead lords who rule and bring them down. It uses the investigative GUMSHOE rules set but mixes in much more options for action scenes. It also offers several rules tweaks to get the espionage feel the group wants. The spy genre is a broad definition but the game offers rules for groups that want a James Bond, Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne feel.
The game also offers a wide toolbox on how to build the campaign’s vampires. Vampires are also a very broad category. Part of the investigative element of GUMSHOE works well in figuring out which bits of folklore are true and which bits are false. Vampire games require a set of rules for the bad guys to work under and the campaign does a great job examining the pros and cons of powers and limits. The game also offers help in building up a vampire conspiracy that goes from street level thugs, through multinational corporations all the way up to the vampire lord’s crypt. There are example conspiracies in the book that act as excellent jump offs or quick adversaries in addition to fully playable bad guys on their own.
By comparison, the spy side of things comes off less useful. It’s a daunting thing to wade into the mass of agencies, private contractors and shady individuals and pare it down to something that fits in the core book. Most of the information can be had in a few minutes on Wikipedia. The book’s default setting of the european intelligence underground makes things exotic. It also means the GM should look to do a bit of legwork if they want plots grounded in the real world. Some games won’t care about the difference between the Russian Mafia and the Italian Mafia, but those that do will want to prep with some outside sources. This side of the book is merely good, not great.
The art also is an area of relative weakness. Pelgrane has a history of putting out gorgeous books and Night’s Black Agents has a fantastic layout and several art pieces that fit the mood perfectly. But the art is inconsistent, especially when it comes to depictions of the monsters the agents find themselves battling. Pelgrane’s no slouch in the monster department. There are several pieces in the Trail of Cthulhu line that are perfect, brooding and unsettling. The monster pieces here are too often brightly lit when they should be swallowed by shadow. The art featuring agents and their methods fares much better.
Every version of the GUMSHOE rules improves on the last and Night’s Black Agents is no exception. The thriller rules turn one of the weaknesses of the system into a strength. Short combats and quick, brutal outcomes are a staple of spy thrillers. But now the agents have many more options ranging from spends that allow them to go whenever they want to stunts that refresh pools if the player takes the time to talk up how awesome a gadget is. The skill list is flavorful and adds bonuses for each general skill hitting a certain level instead of a select few. GUMSHOE is proving to be a surprisingly robust platform for different versions of the game. Each version is similar enough for people to grasp the basics but the genre modifications work splendidly. There’s even a section that talks about using other games for modifications, like running spies vs. Cthulhu or adapting the powers from Mutant City Blues for actual super spies.
Bottom Line: Night’s Black Agents could easily be played as a straight up spy game. The vampires are delicious, blood red frosting on the cake.
[5 of 5 Stars!]