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Friday 28 November 2014

Staked Twice, Never Bitten

There are one or two facts that you need to know about Double Tap, the first supplement for one of the best RPGs—certainly the finest espionage and finest espionage/horror RPG—of 2012, Night’s Black Agents: the Vampire Spy Thriller RPG. Written by Ken Hite and published by Pelgrane Press, the player characters are ex-secret agents who have learned that their former employers are controlled by vampires and decide to take down the vampiric conspiracy before the vampires take them. As much a toolkit as an RPG, it gives everything that the Director needs to design and create his game, allowing him to design the vampire conspiracy and the vampire threat, from psychic alien leeches to the traditional children of Transylvania, and set the tone and style of the espionage, from the high octane of the James Bond franchise to the dry and mundane grittiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Essentially, Night’s Black Agents is your Schweizer Offiziersmesser of vampires and espionage.

The first fact is that as the title might suggest, Double Tap is not a supplement about guns—Double Tap being a shooting manoeuvre intended to ensure that a target is definitely dead by shooting him twice in the head—although there is a section about guns in the book. This of course begs the question, “Why exactly, is this supplement called ‘Double Tap’?”. Which is a perfectly good question to which there is a perfectly good answer in the last paragraph of this review. The second is that Double Tap is not the ‘Agent’s Companion’ for Night’s Black Agents. It is instead the ‘The Night’s Black Agents Expansion Book’, because it contains information for the Director as well as the players and their characters. Indeed, it has sections entitled ‘Agent’s Companion’ and ‘Director’s Companion’. Between them, the players and Director are served up a plethora of clues, benefits, cherries, manoeuvres, rules, gadgets and (yes) guns, and more—all delivered as an easy-to-digest, no-fuss, but some frills, in-country supply drop.

The ‘Agent’s Companion’ dives straight into a re-examination of an agent’s Abilities. Each receives a new overviews and a new focus, the latter less mechanical than a new means of applying it; a ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’ that showcases how might be used to best effect; sample benefits to be gained from spending the points from an Ability’s pool; and sample clues. For example, the new focus for the Accounting Ability is money laundering. It provides a short, but detailed description of how it is done; its ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’ describes how Accounting might be used to track down and use an illegal stash of guns to gain an advantage over the opposition; and how it can be spent to gain benefits on other Abilities when they are next used. The accompanying sample clues show how ‘following the money’ can lead somewhere interesting, and like the sample clues for the other Abilities detailed in Double Tap, can either be as is and added in game, or as models to adjusted for the Director’s own game. Other Investigative Abilities also include extra details, associated equipment, and so on, such as the list of British Police Jargon for Cop Talk, the most expensive hotels in Europe for High Society, toxins for Pharmacy, and what you pack in a ‘Bug-Out’ bag under Urban Surveillance.

Then Double Tap does exactly the same thing for an Agent’s General Abilities. Again, each of these is given a new focus, for example, Parkour for Athletics and Plastic Explosives for Explosives; new sample clues, and so on. Instead of ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’, they have new Cherries, the extra special benefits that come with having high Abilities. In general, these are not quite as interesting as those for Investigative Abilities, but the point of this re-examination is to make each and every Ability interesting, useful, and evocative. It highlights how every Ability can bear upon the game and how the Director should be bringing his player Agents’ Abilities into his campaign.

Double Tap then presents a number of new mechanical options or ‘Tricks of the Trade’, that work in conjunction with a player narration. All a player has to do is narrate the action to gain the benefit of an Ability refresh with these, just as with those in the core rules. In this they work in a similar fashion to the Thriller manoeuvres, like Gear Devil or Technothriller Monologue, found in Night’s Black Agents. They also push the levels of competence, so are suited to more cinematic games. The first is a number of new Thriller manoeuvres, the majority of which these are for non-combat Abilities, such as Grease Monkey for Mechanics and Verbal Trauma Unit for Medic. These are followed by a set of Achievement refreshes—inspired by computer gaming—that push up the cinematic aspects of Night’s Black Agents that little bit more, such as ‘Lifeline’ for climbing out of a window using knotted sheets or fire hose, or ‘Mother Superior’ for impersonating a religious figure! Tricks of the Trade’ continues with ‘Adaptive Tradecraft’, which takes ‘standard’ adaptive espionage or Tradecraft techniques and suggests how they might work when hunting vampires. Rounding this chapter out is a set of standard operating procedures, the Cartagena Rules. These are not for being spies in the field—Night’s Black Agents has the Bucharest Rules for that, backed up by the Moscow Rules in Double Tap—but for playing Night’s Black Agents. Their aim is to keep the game moving and enjoyable, to avoid it stagnating and getting dull, and being a set of rules, they are short and to the point. Good advice for players and Director alike.

‘Materiel’ puts gadgets, gear, and guns under the spotlight. To an extent, this section is in Q Branch territory, especially with its vehicle upgrades like oil slick dispensers and disposable car skins. Guns get the same treatment, but some of the special ammunition may have its uses in any style of game against vampires. Whilst a list of firearms is included, they are not necessarily there for the agents’ use, but rather to arm particular agencies.

The Thriller Chase rules in Night’s Black Agents turned up the action for chases by foot, by vehicle, and so on. ‘Thriller Contests & Manhunts’ does the same for Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, and Surveillance. What this means is that certain non-combat scenes—hacking attempts, stealthy break-ins and break-outs, and monitoring a suspect—can played out dramatically, even thrillingly, by making them intense contests. There are guidelines given to make each of them thrilling and how to use other Abilities during Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, or Surveillance attempts. Not every attempt or scene involving Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, or Surveillance need be run as a Thriller Contest, but when needed, now they can, and they give the player agents involved their moment in the spotlight. In similar fashion, the Manhunt rules up the ante for handling chases, especially where the quarry is trying to do more than just get away. Of course, this is all whilst the player agents are burned and out in the cold, no longer having access to the manpower or infrastructure to carry out a manhunt.

The remaining third of Double Tap is the ‘Director’s Companion’ and for his eyes only. He receives a good set of NPCs, ready to fill out cameo roles, and easy to portray and modify, that can be used as assets or clues. Accompanying these is a set of ‘Establishing Shots’, locations and scenes that the Director can set up a scene and bring it to life. Both sets are evocative and fun, as well as being easy-to-use tools. Double Tap also comes with four new monsters—the chupa, the ekimmu, the homunculus, and the penanggalan—and a complete vampire build in the form of the nosferatu, the latter being familiar to most gamers (and agents). Of course Night’s Black Agents has plenty of options when it comes to the Director creating or selecting a vampiric foe for his game, but these add more, especially given that there are notes included on how to turn these creatures of one legend into another. For the Director, a whole new story aid is provided in the form of the ‘Suspyramid’, which plugs into the ‘Conspyramid’, the structure that underpins the vampire conspiracy in Night’s Black Agents. It helps him run games in which the player agents not only dismantle the conspiracy, but set parts of it against each other. Rounding out the ‘Director’s Companion’ are notes on running Night’s Black Agents in other eras, specifically the Victorian Age, World War II, and the Cold War. These do feel a little underwritten, but they are really no more than notes. Of course, any one of these three periods would be worthy of a supplement in their own right.

Physically, Double Tap is a well-written, easy-to-read, and easily digestible supplement. Its contents are nicely supported by a good index and, for the Director, summary lists of the cherries and vampiric powers—both from Night’s Black Agents and Double Tap.

Companion volumes are not always the most interesting or coherent of reads. This is the danger of covering lots of different subjects under one cover, but Double Tap contains different things that are actually interesting. The new rules its gives are interesting and better than that, they evoke their genre and are fun in the process. If there is a downside to them, it is that they evoke the more cinematic side of Night’s Black Agents, rather than the drier grittier side. Nevertheless, Double Tap provides plenty of manoeuvres and tricks of the trade to ensure that a Director’s Night’s Black Agent is definitely fun.

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