The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror

The latest 4 Dollar Dungeon-module clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 84 pages, so let's take a look!

But before we dive into the nit and grit of this module, I feel obliged to point out some peculiar facts of this book: For one, I provided basic advice for a minor crunch-component that is part of the supplemental information in this pdf. I was not involved in any other way with this book. Beyond that, this book follows the format established by 4 Dollar Dungeons - that means you'll get A LOT of supplemental material herein - spells, items etc. Basically, the idea is to provide a holistic experience and minimize your requirement for book-swapping. Additionally, the pdf does provide all artworks in an appendix, so you can easily print out the pieces and utilize them as hand-outs.

Beyond that, the module offers excessive and sound discussions on the nature of fear in roleplaying games, particularly in the fantasy-horror genre - the observations and justifications for the design-process presented here are more than sound - and the same can be said about the detailed advice provided for the more lethal encounters herein. Few modules provide this level of guidance, so yes, GMs will have a pretty easy time running this - also due to handy tables listing CRs, XP, treasures and encounter-difficulty as well as scaling advice. Of course, the by now traditional, detailed random encounters and traveling information are also provided and, as a bonus, monster-lore for teh GM to hand-out to players, can also be found.

All right, so let's see whether Richard Develyn can maintain his streak of absolutely legendary modules. From here on out, SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No, really. Don't spoil a 4 Dollar Dungeon-module - you'd regret it.
All right...only GMs here? Great! 

So can Richard Develyn write classic horror? I'll let the module answer:
"Somewhere deep below the ground lies a vampiric creature of fearsome proportions [...] it stretches its veins, each of them big enough to swallow a tarrasque, through densely packed iron and rock [...] and when these tendrils break through to the earth's crust, a new dynasty of vampires soon comes into being." - and so, an ancient, quasi-cthulhoid menace spawned a vampire dynasty in Maison D'Artère. While subtle, the vampires, supplemented by this vein of terrible power, became a bit too confident - and so, they drew the attention of the order of the lily. Unlike the previous, foolhardy heroes that sought to end the undead menace, the cavaliers did their homework - and targeted a nodule of the vast cthonic creature, plunging the magical lance "Fleur de Lis" into the nodule, pumping poison into the vast creature to destroy it - but such gigantic threats are not easily defeated. Cutting the nodule off from crucial components of the vampiric Great Old One/deity-analogue, the isolated nodule soon turned against the vampires it had spawned - after the blood was drained from the vampires and after the cavaliers had fallen, nothing remained to sate the unholy appetite of the vast creature below castle Rougemord and so, the ancient veins petrified.

The Fleur de Lis, an intelligent weapon with an inflated ego (and a significant paranoia) remained lost, embedded in the ancient, chthonic threat. Now, the order of the lily has tasked the PCs to retrieve the lost item - the first clue of which will force the PCs to explore the tomb of Lemaistre, the fleur's former wielder.

But first, the PCs will get a taste of the walled town of Englouti (full settlement statblock provided), where the module starts, which also will provide a new experience for people familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: Know how the cartography was pretty much the one thing not absolutely superb in the 4$D-modules? How it usually was copious, provided for all areas, but just functional? What would you say when I told you that this one sports absolutely stunning, original cartography, both in b/w and full color? Particularly the renditions of the towns and overland maps are absolutely awesome and not something I've seen in many pdfs, much less ones at this price range, with player-friendly high-res versions provided? Yes, particularly for the low price-point, this is more than impressive.

An interesting note regarding the structure of this module would also pertain to the PCs traveling to the village of Sans-secours, from which the fabled tomb can be reached: You see, it's spring (NOT autumn or winter!) and thus, it is perfectly valid for the PCs to spend some time in the local village while they prepare their expedition to the remote tomb - and 3 weeks of slowly escalating weirdness and foreshadowing are provided for the life there, adding a pretty detailed depiction of the local life and allowing the PCs to form connections, rather than plunging head-first into horror. Oh, and they will probably fall to a bait-and-switch there - you see, the tomb does not hold the lance...or any undead for that matter. All the nice holy water and spells they brought...are pretty useless. Heck, the place isn't even really dangerous apart from one particular creature, but that lairs beyond the tomb.

It's when the trail leads to Rougemord, that things get creepy - fast. The castle's vicinity seems to spawn rather disturbing visions and nightmares  and the approach of the castle is guarded by a creature that fits with the horror-theme in a slightly less obvious manner; that being said, this adversary can TPK foolish groups and provide a nasty hit-and-run adversary. The castle sports massive amounts of ravens, deadly animals, crawling claws - and something I could hug the module for: There's not a single undead to fear herein. heck, even dueling skeletons are animated objects. The exploration of the castle allows the PCs to partake in the horrors that once graced these halls and much of the place's incantations remain...as do some outsiders. From psychopomps to devils, there is a lot to uncover and indeed, some places can be considered micro-puzzles.

Describing the immense amount of detail that the castle is studded with would probably bloat this review to an extent I do not consider feasible in this case - instead, let's skip a bit ahead: Sooner or later, should the PCs not fall to the castle's dangers, they will find those odd caverns...and finally, the lance. Who is a) annoying and not too smart and b) urging them to pull it free. What nether the lance, nor the PCs know, though, is that with the removal of the lance, a strange heartbeat is heard - and no amount of coaxing can properly jam the lance back inside. From here on out, things become rather dark very fast - all lupine creatures within miles of the castle howl to a blood-red moon, as more and more hungry vampire-spawn are released from the slowly revitalizing walls...and it soon becomes apparent that the PCs are in over their heads...massively.

Fleeing the castle precipice under the auspice of hundreds of snarling, lupine creatures, they can witness a friend fall to the maw of a winter wolf - who also constitutes the boss...but not the end. With the sledge conveniently brought by their erstwhile, now dead ally, the PCs have a sledding chance to escape the doom that has re-awakened in Rougemord in a final adrenaline-laden chase sequence. If you've handled this well, the darkness has returned to Rougemord and a new reign of terror will begin...and your players will look at each other in true horror and whisper "What have we done?"

Now if the apocalyptic awakening of a vast clan of vampires and a chthonic elder vampire thing don't fit your plans, fret not - as the module suggests, there is a certain demiplane of dread all too willing to scour the whole region with its misty tendrils...

As mentioned before, the module has copious supplemental information, including the order of the lily, which actually features some intriguing visuals - and if your players are like mine, they may want to take up the order's vow and seek to right the terrible thing they have unwittingly wrought...

Editing and formatting are very good -I only noticed pretty minor issues here and there. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons' printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience AND in two versions - one for letterpack-format and one for the European A4-format for people like yours truly. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The cartography's quality (and particularly, the gorgeous isometric renditions of the places) are beyond what you'd expect to see in such a low-cost pdf. The pdf also comes with high-res jpgs for use with virtual tabletops and, as mentioned before, with plentiful materials for the GM.

Richard Develyn has written the most un-gothic gothic horror adventure I've ever read. That's a great thing. Good horror is NOT, contrary to what 99% of found-footage movies believe, being startled. Neither does it derive its impact from being grossed out. Sure, that can be horrific - but it's not horror. Horror may spring from the grotesque and alien, sure, but that's not what this is about, either.
Horror has a psychological component that taps into our psyche with subtle imagery and symbolism - and such symbolism can be found herein - whether it's the idiot child, the twisted mother figure and the like - we may not perceive it consciously, but our unconscious notes these.
Hence, this module is decidedly smart - it begins at a stage of innocence with set-ups, which, while foreboding, mirror a certain innocence that is inherent in the fantasy genre. It then begins to dismantle it - slowly, but surely, escalating the threat by making the backdrop, symbolically-charged and the imagery of the lance and the nodule resonate with a primal sense of horror to which one could ascribe perinatal dread hard-coded into our very being. The season of growth, early spring, and the imagery of wolves and ravens with their symbolic charges further supplements this reading - it's these creatures that are the threat in the end, less so than the intentionally pitiful dragon that is featured in the innocent phase of the module.

Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of undead (a stroke of genius design in a genre that all too often is defined by the erroneous assumption that bones, blood and undead are creepy in and of themselves), this module GETS what makes gothic horror work...and one-ups it. While this can be read as a kind of gothic horror narrative, it could conceivably just as easily be read as a tale of cosmic terror or Lovecraftian proportions - the psychological imagery evoked by the module can just as well be externalized to represent a hostile cosmos of adversaries, a glimpse at a world at best indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants. Note that usually, such a reading would be terribly at odds with any remotely related to Gothic Horror: Cosmic terror is existential, pertaining to a reality that is removed from the individual, to a sense of completely alienation from everything. Gothic Horror, on the other hand, is a deeply humane kind of horror, one wherein the internal struggles of the psyche are made into externalized threats - it is deeply personal. The only reason both are often confused is a shared array of backdrops and styles, both of which, however, sport vastly diverging meanings and readings - they may occupy the same physical building, but they do not play in the same house.

Horror must grow - and this pdf takes its time with a decidedly slow-paced set-up, one that has its climax hit all the harder - so hard, in fact, that it can become the nexus of a whole campaign, should you choose to embark on this train of thought. It doesn't have to, mind you - but the potential is undoubtedly there. So what do we have here? We have a module that actually understands what gothic horror is about. Yes, at first glance it does read a bit like early Ravenloft modules - something almost decidedly intentional. However, unlike those "bones & blood are creepy"-modules, it shows a distinct understanding why some of the classic Ravenloft modules worked, while others devolved into sucky hack-fests. 

This knowledge is not something you could easily convey, either in modules, words or artworks - it bespeaks of a deeper understanding of the genre. To the point, where not even aforementioned pseudo-lovecraftian readings of the subject-matter undermine the impact of this book, allowing for one of the very few cases where one could conceivably generate an overlap between the two without losing the impact on either. And yes, should you choose to, you can make the finale less...impactful...but you'd rob yourself and your group of a truly horrific pay-off of epic proportions.

On a personal level, I read this module with some sense of dread, mainly because I've seen A LOT regarding gothic horror - I've dabbled for many years in all of its forms and representations, not only in the context of gaming. However, Richard Develyn once again displays his vast and diverse talent by portraying yet another genre in a way I have not seen done before - the design-decisions, imagery and brave ending to the narrative conspire to make this module one that will leave your players at the very least gulping, at the best rather shocked...stunned even. Not via a cheap, narrative trick, but by virtue of all those little symbols and pieces falling into place with an almost audible "thwump." This module could have been the plot to a classic tale by Poe, had he had a background of fantasy roleplaying games - what more can you ask for?

One more thing: If my above explanations made no sense to you, feel free to contact me and I'll elaborate. And if you don't care about any part of this, just run it - you'll understand what I meant once you've completed this module...

Richard maintains his streak - this is the 7th module IN A ROW, all wildly different in focus, story, structure and genre, that gets 5 stars + seal of approval AND status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. In case you're wondering - yes, so far ALL of these seven featured in the final top ten for their respective years. These modules aren't simple adventures - they are stimulating, smart art that can be appreciated on a whim or analyzed in-depth. In either case, you won't find a module even close to this level of quality anywhere near this price-point...or beyond that, for that matter. Dear adventure-authors (and particularly, anyone who throws the term "gothic horror" around willy-nilly without knowing what it means), take heed - this is how it's done in a fantasy context without losing the impact the genre requires to thrive.

You can get this superb module here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.


The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)

The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)

The Esoterrorists clocks in at 161 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, leaving 155 pages of content, so let's take a look!

I received a print copy of this book for the purpose of providing a critical and unbiased review. This book was moved up in my review-queue due to this fact.

The Esoterrorists is the game that originally introduced the GUMSHOE-engine, which has since then been used in quite an intriguing array of systems that provide some overlap and options to combine them.

The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative Cthulhu-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 defined by a focus on the story and roleplaying investigations, as opposed to tactical encounters.

Esoterrorist's 2nd edition can be pretty much considered to be the most easy to learn of the GUMSHOE games - the book can be considered to be the basic-version of the rules, without the more complex additions of other variants. From a didactic point of view, this book does a great job explaining the system - to the point where I tried handing it to someone not familiar at all with GUMSHOE. The lady cooked up a character and understood the system almost immediately. So yes, the presentation here is de facto better regarding its user-friendliness than in comparable GUMSHOE-games.

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, Document Analysis, Flirting - you get the idea. Now here's the cincher 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 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.)
The abilities not related to the field of investigation directly would be general abilities: These follow different rules and contain melee (via scuffling), health, stability, etc. - here, failure is a distinct possibility. 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.

So that would be the basic system - it is simple, elegant and, as you may note, bereft of e.g. complications like the cherries provided in Night's Black Agents. While this makes the rules-frame of Esoterrorists less intriguing than that of comparable GUMSHOE-titles, it does provide a crucial advantage - adaptability: Basically, you can graft all specific GUMSHOE-rules you want into esoterrorists: From Night's Black Agent's thriller combat to Fear Itself's (review coming!) psychic rules or any combination thereof, esoterrorists ultimately represents the most effortlessly customizable of the GUMSHOE-games: Whether you're looking for pulpy action or face to the grindstone horror, the system can be customized for just about anything. Oh, and since it is set in our contemporary times, Trail of Cthulhu + Esoterrorists = Cthulhu Now...or Delta Green -as just some examples.

But this is not simply a rule-book - it is also a campaign setting. I do not own the Fact Book (which is a player-handbook, or so I believe), but all you actually need is in here. The basic premise is pretty simple: The investigators work for the OV, the Ordo Veritatis. This organization is an ancient secret-service-type of order that seeks to protect the unwitting mortals from the dread creatures that seek to invade our world from the Outer Dark. No, the OV is not going to inevitably betray the investigators. They're actually the good guys... Yeah, I know - crazy, right? I'm pretty much as stunned by this as you are! It is pretty interesting to note that the book actually contains specific information on how investigations are handled - for the players!

Procedural protocols, if you will, with different levels of staffer-experience for the analysis backdrop of the OV, add a significant level of awesomeness to the campaign setting as presented and provide further options for tight, fun roleplaying - you want your capable support-guys back at home to live, right? After all, if Jefferson hadn't known about this obscure bullet coated in virgin's blood and mandragora, you'd all be dead by now... Oh, and there's this other thing you should know: Veil-outs are crucial...for a reason.

You see, the basic premise of esoterrorists is that there's a struggle going: Basically belief and perception shape our world and what we have achieved with our enlightened society means that the laws of physics are strengthened. If belief in them fades, the veil gets thinner. Horror, breakdowns of how the world works etc. means that the membrane that shelter us from a world of horrors thins. Esoterrorists, the enemies of the OV, seek to let more entities into our world and spread terror and fear simply because the breakdown thins the membrane between our structured world and one of infinite possibilities, of innumerous nightmares - and from power to megalomania, there's a lot to be gained here. The intriguing component from an academic point of view here would be the fact that this echoes perfectly the idiosyncratic perceptions of reality we all are subject to, the psychology of our weltanschauung. 

Where in Cthulhu, the default assumption is that ignorance constitutes bliss, here, it is an ideology that keeps us alive. And yes, this means that you actually can blend both in intriguing ways. It also is absolutely tailor-made to evoke themes like that of the Silent hill-franchise, where doom and dread and a world most twisted lurks beneath the surface - when the veils thin and there's a breach, things start to become odd, horrific...dangerous. Thus, more so than anything else, deniability, the cloaking of what's truly going on, is justified as a thoroughly noble cause. This simple set-up lends a level of believability and concise motivation to the default campaign setting that is absent in most similar games. It also provides a superb justification for the procedural protocols of dealing with the creatures from the outer dark. The OV's ethics and code of conduct are impeccable and allow you to actually play the good guys - which is something relatively rarely supported by such games.

Another analogue, beyond the Silent Hill-one, would obviously be Hellraiser - and indeed, the creatures from the outer dark sport, at least in part, overlaps with these beings. However, what truly sets them apart would be that they get what horror is all about. The esoterorists sport, in some way, relatable motivations - while twisted and insane, there are some sample cells that resonate with the deepest, darkest parts of our psyche: From violent bikers beaten into submission by an entity of twisted bones and jagged thorns to collectible-card-game-players conjuring twisted images from the cards to those looking for deviant sexual experiences with beings from the outer dark, the cells (and sample adventure-hooks provided) are nasty and diverse. What about a club of serial killers who meet once a year to engage in a particular vile tradition? Or a nasty international financial conspiracy? From the personal to the geopolitical level, there are a lot of intriguing hooks here.

But they fall short of the creatures introduced in this book. The beings here are truly horrific in that they play with human fears, are both iconic and innovative and still sport a level of personal connection that is downright genius. Know how in Silent Hill, the monsters are visualizations of anxieties, guilt-complexes and traumas? Well, this one kind of goes one step further. There would be the Discarnate, for example - a shapeless, incorporeal entity, a ghost in the machine in the vilest sense of the word. Not only is the dread potential of these creatures vast, their means of creation (and stopping them) is downright disturbing: To create a discarnate, a cell of cults has to build a tomb r tunnel, then ritualistically slash their wrists and collapse the tunnel upon themselves - the entity then takes some components of the personalities and minds of the targets and begins its assault. How do you stop it? My dear readers, I'm not going to spoil that!

What about the Nester? Creeping towards sleeping victims (preferably obese or pregnant people), these creatures jab their hooks into the target, scoop out the abdomen and crawl inside, sealing the belly behind them. Yes, that's not only nasty, that's friggin' nightmare fuel! Or what about a creature that essentially is an outer dark variant of an STD, urging its victim to infect even more targets? Yes, these creatures are disturbing, and delightfully so. However, this fact is further emphasized by the glorious b/w-artworks provided for them - or what about The Host, outer dark entities that thrive on religious mania, subjugating believers and feasting on others? Words clearly fail me here, for however hard I try, I fail to properly evoke how exceedingly well-written these creatures are. But perhaps one example of artwork from within the book helps me make my point:

The prose is even creepier than that. And yes, there is a creature-book on these beings, but alas, I do not own that one.

But let's get back to the task of the GM here, shall we? Basically, the book's user-friendly nature extends to the task of the GM: Advice on clue-structures and the like help create structures that make the respective scenarios easy to run. Char-sheets are provided alongside an extremely handy investigator matrix that helps the GM keep up to date with agent resources and skills. There is also a handy ability-check-list ( so you don't accidentally construct your scenario to include an ability the PCs don't have), a handy scenario-worksheet, adversary-sheets and a sheet to track an esoterrorist cell and even extremely detailed station duty worksheets - 3 of them!! A massive 3-page index also makes using the book very easy on the GM.

I mentioned station duty, didn't I? Well, while the default assumption is one of supernatural agent-gameplay from case to case akin to Millennium or X-Files, the other default game-style is that of station duty: Essentially, there are some places where the membrane threatens to thin - agents of the OV are then sent to the area for long-term operations. In this case, we get a COMPLETE TOWN. No, I'm not exaggerating - there is a massive, completely detailed small town provided here: With copious amounts of NPCs to interact with and hundreds of possibilities: Almost each character has several optional story-threads you can or cannot follow, threads which may turn into pure horror. It's hard to properly depict the level of excruciating detail, from establishing cover identities to the disturbing concepts provided here. Let me just say that this section is the closest to a proper Twin Peaks/Silent Hill-simulator I've ever seen. In case you didn't know - these two franchises constitute some of my favorite pieces of media...ever. Add to that a significant array of delightfully twisted hand-outs from which clues can be extracted and we have a section that may justify getting the book all on its own - it's basically a whole sandbox-campaign, all ready for you and your players.

Speaking of sandbox...

The book also sports a short sample scenario with Prophet Operation Bungo, which, contrary to the tradition of sample scenarios in core/campaign-setting-books, actually is fun, delightful and more detailed than I would have expected.


Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an extremely slick, stylish and atmospheric 2-column-b/w-standard and the pdf provides several downright legendary b/w-artworks. The pdf comes with an EPUB and a MOBI-version and a printer-friendly one...but quite frankly, I'd strongly advise you to get the print. The paper is thick and glossy, high-quality and if you're anything like me, this will be used A LOT.

I'm a cthulhu-fanboy and thus, it should come as no surprise that I got Trail of Cthulhu back in the day. My friend Paco got my Night's Black Agents, which is a glorious game. I never got Esoterrorists and wouldn't have bought it - the title and concept didn't particularly appeal to me, so why bother?

My gut-feeling and instinct was never this wrong in my whole reviewer's-career.
This is the best horror-book I've read in years, regardless of setting.
Let me elaborate: After more than 15 years of obsession with vampires and the cthulhu-mythos, both themes have become kind of predictable to me. I *love* both, but at one point, games focusing exclusively on either ultimately become the doom of horror - predictable. We fear what we do not understand. As soon as we get our oomphteenth Mi-Go or Yithian, their horror is lost, they become predictable foes. Similarly, vampires can, in the long run, lose their fascination. This is, ultimately, what made me turn my back on the GUMSHOE-system for a while and the primary reason I did not start reviewing books of the system sooner - I was burned out on the subject matter and so were my players.

Esoterrorists changed that.

You could argue that I've never played a vanilla esoterrorists-game. You'd be right. What I did when this book hit my shelves, was something different: I dusted off Night's Black Agents and added the whole concept of the membrane to the game, introduced entities from the other dark and recruited the agents into the OV, which, of course, was among the organizations the vampires sought to infiltrate. I added creatures of the outer dark and the station duty town to my trail of cthulhu games. And suddenly, they were new - disturbing, fresh and diverse. Beyond resonating with iconic themes and a fresh perspective, this book is not only innovative - it GETS HORROR. No, really. This understands horror to a point that bespeaks not only the vast talent of Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as writers, it also constitutes an eureka-effect I haven't had in ages - this humble, little book has inspired me to an extent I have not experienced since I first stumbled over Ravenloft and Planescape back in the day. It is incredibly frustrating to me that I cannot properly put the genius of this book into words, cannot convey the level of impact this book's ideas have had on my games.

Don't get me wrong - Night's Black Agents is quite frankly the better game regarding pure mechanics - it's more complex, more diverse and the thriller combat and chase rules are exceedingly smart. But, at least to me, Esoterrorists is a book that's infinitely more compelling because its prose, the concepts provided, are just so incredibly compelling, because they feature the experience of jamais-vu and because the horror presented here actually really strikes home: This is not blood and guts, this is psychologically disturbing in the way that only great horror is - where the true ramifications are slowly build up. This is the antithesis of the jump-scare-movie - this is smart horror that sticks with you.

This is not only a game - Esoterrorists is basically, a gigantic, awesome template that can be applied to just about any horror game you can conceive. It works in a plethora of contexts because its theme resonate with our very basic, human psychology.

It is my firm conviction that this book belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM looking for inspiration regarding horror-settings and how to create compelling set-ups. If you're playing ANY GUMSHOE-game, this book can be considered a vast amplifier: The concepts within this book are so incredibly compelling and fun, they managed to re-ignite my spark for cthulhu-related material by virtue of the means by which you can use the content herein to enhance the world of the mythos.

I haven't been this excited by a book, any book, in a long, long time - even only as an idea-scavenging-ground, this book is superb by any definition of the word. And know what? While my Top ten-list of the year usually is restricted to Pathfinder-supplements, I will grant this one status as a candidate - its contents and ideas are simply too compelling and can be a vast inspiration in ANY context you can conceive. I firmly believe that simply reading this book makes you a better horror-GM, even if you ignore the rules and setting. You won't be surprised, then, that I'll add my EZG Essentials-tag to a book that scores 5 stars + seal of approval, a book that blew my mind.

If horror interests you even in the slightest, if you even tangentially like smart, psychological horror, if you even remotely enjoy Twin Peaks, Silent Hill, The Evil Within, X-Files, Millennium and if you really want some fresh wind in your respective horror of preference, then this book should go right to the top of your to-buy list. It's that good.

You can get this superb book here on OBS!
A Free preview can be found here!
Want a free supplemental recruitment book for OV-agents? You can get that here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


Night's Black Agents (GUMSHOE)

Night's Black Agents (GUMSHOE)

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.

You can get this absolutely glorious vampire-spy-thriller-game here on OBS!

Those free materials I mentioned in my review? Here's the link to them!

There's one more thing: You see, there currently (until Halloween!) a pre-order going - the core book, plus the director's handbook, plus the Dracula Unredacted? What's the latter? Well, perhaps the most ambitious hand-out in gaming history - the original Dracula novel, commented and suffused with lore that pertains to Night's Black Agents! Yes, this is the equivalent of a cthulhu mythos tome-handout. Damn cool and something I'm very excited to see!

The pre-order bundle can be ordered here at 10% off.

Endzeitgeist out.