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Saturday, 17 November 2012

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As its title suggests, Laundry Files: Agent’s Handbook, the first supplement to be published for the Laundry Files, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s RPG of esoteric espionage based on the Laundry Files series of novels by Charles Stross, is not just for the GM, but for his players too. As what is essentially a companion volume to the core rule book, it also contains plenty of information that a player will find useful. Within its pages can be found discussions of subjects as mundane as bureaucracy, car chases, and chases, and as outré as Deep Hybrids and Gorgons, along with advice on running Laundry Files campaigns outside of the good offices of Capital Laundry Services and also within, but during other time frames. Like any good companion for an RPG, the Agent’s Handbook brings together a diverse range of articles, in this case all with either a bureaucracy, espionage, or horror theme; or a combination of all three. It begins in purely espionage territory with solid introduction to the arts of Tradecraft and Fieldcraft. It covers everything from sources of information, running agents, and codes to tailing, surveillance, and electronic surveillance. Whilst all of the information presented here could easily be found elsewhere, having it in one place is useful and it does provide enough detail for the Games Master without the need for further research. Of course, this being a companion for an outré espionage RPG, the occult aspects of both arts are also discussed, including occult stenography (hidden writing) and occult tailing. This switching back and forth between the ordinary and the outré continues with the next two chapters, “Bell, Book, and Candle” and “Firearms.” These two chapters come chock full of toys in a manner that is almost as much fun as the old Q Manual for the James Bond 007 RPG, which is somehow fitting that all of the Laundry’s technical knowhow is provided by Q Division. Although the first chapter covers items as ordinary as forensic kits and night vision goggles, it also details devices seen in the novels, such as Display Glasses and the OCCULUS wagon. Rules are also provided for vehicles and chases; for designated premises – essentially rules for creating Laundry agents’ homes; and for handling experimental devices, the type of contraption that the players get to have fun with before its goes “fffizzzt” and the Games Master gets to have fun with all of the side effects. Rounding out the chapter is a couple of sample safehouses created using the given guidelines.

For the most part, the handguns, submachine guns, rifles, and shotguns described in the Agent’s Handbook are all ordinary enough, for the most part intended to arm the opposition rather than the player characters. This expands upon the armoury included in the core rules and helps add verisimilitude to what is both an espionage game and a modern set game. The chapter does not wholly ignore the outré, adding a selection of occult shotgun shells to the specialised ammunition already detailed.

Of course, the player character agents are going to want to get to play with the new toys presented in the previous chapters and “Black Budget, Red Tape” discusses how this is done. Its focus is on the use of the Bureaucracy and Status skills, both of which are necessary if the player character agents are to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine organisation chart that makes up the Laundry’s administration. The need for this can be both skills it to manipulate the budget for its current mission, to search the Laundry’s records, to requisition items from Q Division, or in effect to even besmirch or befuddle enemies and rivals within the Laundry. The Games Master can involve the player characters in an audit, performance reviews, informal manager meetings, and so on. All of this should been done sparingly, but just as it plays a role in the novels, it should play role in the Game Master’s campaign.

If the Laundry has to be ISO 9001 compliant, then so does its agents and thus, so do the player characters. This means not only the filling out of forms and reports, but also training courses, and as part of the civil service of the United Kingdom, the Laundry offers lots of courses, from the mundane Achieving More with Less and Managing Change to the unconventional Exorcism 101 and Briefing the Uninitiated: Rapid Esoteric Induction Workshop. Most obviously courses are a means by which a player character can be improved, but they also work as roleplaying hooks, rewards, and sometimes punishments. There are courses here to suit all aptitudes and ambitions.

Player characters fall under the spotlight with a set of ready-to-play, bar customisation, investigator templates; new professions, including one for an Assassin; and two sets of new rules for character generation. The first of these sets allows a player to create his character in five year blocks, enabling the creation of an agent with a broader skill base, whilst the second set provides a means to veteran Laundry agents. All of these options are joined by perhaps the most outré concept in the supplement – outré that this for the Laundry Files RPG as opposed to any other RPG. This is the idea that the players can take the role of non- or near-humans. This includes Deep One Hybrids, Ghosts, Gorgons, Parallel Reality Refugees, and Residual Human Entities (or zombies), the latter being the eventual status for Laundry agents killed in the Line of Duty whose corpses are not too heavily damaged. Although such creatures are encountered in the fiction, most notably Ramona Random of the novel The Jennifer Morgue, the inclusion of these non- or near-humans as a player option feels at odds with the fiction – more so during character creation, rather than something to transition into, as with the Ghosts and Residual Human Entities. Perhaps the least radical of the near-humans given is Parallel Reality Refugee, but for the most part the inclusion of these “races” works better as a means for the Games Master to create NPCs.

Lastly, the Agent’s Handbook explores campaign concepts within the universe of the Laundry Files, both away from the offices of Capital Laundry Services and inside them, but in different time periods. Campaigns away from the Laundry take the Laundry Files more into traditional Call of Cthulhu territory, though the authorities – or at least some of the authorities – are possibly aware of the Mythos, and in the case of the Laundry, are if not monitoring the investigators’ activities, then watching for something that will trigger their intervention. Most notably, the supplement discusses the possibility of playing cultists and thus allowing the players to take the role of the winners! (After all, the Stars will come Right for someone if not something!). This is of course a daunting prospect as sorcery and thus Mythos knowledge is difficult to acquire and they face the possibility of ending up as sacrifices as much as they face being arrested and incarcerated, if not inducted into the Laundry. Also discussed are the possibilities of playing a campaign based around another agency, such as the USA’s much feared Black Chamber (though this is covered in more detail in the supplement, God GAME Black). Equally as interesting is the possibility of running a historical game of the Laundry Files, perhaps during the 1930s and World War II, during the Cold War, and so on. The first of these of course, lends itself to a crossover with Modiphius Press’ Achtung! Cthulhu line, but to be honest, as good as any of these ideas are, and there is no denying the potential in any one of them, they do all suffer from brevity. They could all do with much more information being devoted to them, indeed, the authors of the Agent’s Handbook could take the contents of the sections to running alternate campaigns and turn it into a whole book. There are campaign ideas here that are worth chapters themselves rather than little more than a mere page each…

Physically, the Agent’s Handbook is well written and tidily presented with the occasional piece of good art. It is somewhat drily written, though the geeky wit of Stross’ novels is allowed to shine through in the footnotes. A nice addition comes in the “form” of “Official Forms” that if used by the Games Master will add verisimilitude to his game.

Laundry Files: Agent’s Handbook continues the high standards for the game line’s supplements set by Black Bag Jobs. Where that anthology provided a sextet of excellent scenarios, the Agent’s Handbook provides exactly what it should, and that is, supplementary useful. All of it is useful, all of it is well written (though in places there could be more of it), and all of it will only add depth and detail to a Laundry Files game.