Nights Black Agents and Zalozhniy Quartet
Image source: Thomas Hawk

Nights Black Agents and Zalozhniy Quartet

We recently finished a campaign of Night’s Black Agents, after playing it for 1.5-years and 29-sessions, making it one of the longest campaigns I’ve played. Night’s Black Agents is a role-playing game where – to put it like the designer does – Jason Bourne meets Dracula. Drawing from the paranoid world of spy fiction and the classic vampire tale, it reveals the terrible truth about the supernatural to a group of international spies and criminals, leaving them with just one choice: take out the vampire conspiracy before they take you out. Zalozhniy Quartet is a four-adventure campaign for Night’s Black Agents, which we dove into right after the introductory adventure in the main book.

In a long game the strengths of the game really shone through. It is based on the tried-and-true GUMSHOE system, which is focused on the investigative style of play. There is one central flash of brilliance in the system: it separates the procedural challenges (can I climb over that wall?) from the investigative challenges (do I find the clue?). Procedural challenges must be rolled for, while the use of investigative skills never fails, if it is done in the right place at the right time. This simple realization makes sure that the game never gets stuck due to bad rolls.

Night’s Black Agents adds some rules for genre-appropriate things, like finding inventory caches, escaping police attention and fighting with action movie stylishness. The result is very polished, with the system focusing on what is interesting and cool about being a spy – it doesn’t try to be a simulation, but rather emulates all the best bits of the movies in the spy action -genre.

Night’s Black Agents does have one bit of GUMSHOE-appropriate cleverness. The players know that they are playing a game with vampires, but the system is built so that they can never be sure what that exactly means. Instead of having stats for vampires, the book contains the building blocks of making vampires, suggesting few different categories vampires might belong to: maybe they are occult vampires, maybe it’s a blood-borne virus, or maybe vampires are cursed by God. Whatever the flavour, the GM can build the vampires to match the needs of the game – and keep the players guessing exactly what they are up against.

Zalozhniy Quartet ups the stakes a bit more. It throws in other supernatural elements, a decades old plot mixed up in the international spy circles and a mob-family complicating all of this. The four adventures in the book are all linked, but they can also be played in any order players choose to. That being said, there seems to be a logical flow to them, and my players chose to go in the assumed order, so the choice may be more of an illusion than actuality. Regardless of the order, they are all fine adventures. All of them are very different, requiring everything from fighting to detective work and social engineering to successfully manage. I am relying on my impressions, but it seemed that my players enjoyed all of them – although some of them seemed a bit stressful, asking a lot both from the players and the characters. The ending was also very clichéd, ending exactly as you would expect a spy campaign against a supernatural conspiracy to end. I’m not sure that is a bad thing, though – clichés are clichés for a reason.

My favourite part of the campaign was how it was tied into actual historical events. Playing in contemporary Europe has its perks: we could use Google Maps for maps and when players unearthed a historical clue, I could point them at Wikipedia for information.

I’ve been leaning heavily on published adventures since I noticed that I don’t have time to develop my own anymore, and Zalozhniy Quartet is probably the best one I bought. The elaborate backstory required some preparation, and I had to read the adventures pretty carefully beforehand, but otherwise it saved me a lot of preparation time, while delivering a very carefully crafted story. The ending was probably the weakest part of the game, but that might have been my fault. After all the twists and turns on the way, the ending should probably be given a bit more thought than I managed to find time for. Overall, the campaign was one the best role-playing experiences I’ve had.