Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 9 June 2019

A Disorderly Foursome

The Zalozhniy Quartet is the first set of scenarios 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 roleplaying game casts the player characters as 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 Zalozhniy Quartet is, much like Night’s Black Agents itself, a toolkit. At its heart are four, high octane scenarios in the vein of The Bourne Identity and its sequels—extending all the way up to the Bond series of films—that can be run in any order and can be adjusted to whatever type of campaign or vampire that the Director is already running. So that is either Burn, Dust, Mirror, or (High) Stakes Mode, with vampires at the heart of the conspiracy either being supernatural, damned, alien, or mutant in nature. That said, the almost alchemical nature of some The Zalozhniy Quartet’s MacGuffins means that some types vampire are better suited than others, in particular, the supernatural or damned types. This enables the four scenarios to be added to the Director’s own campaign with relative ease. Although the tone and drive are all high action and a nod to modern espionage films, the underlying plot is dryer, more measured and restrained, inspired more by the works of authors John Le Carre and Eric Ambler, and this is apparent in some of the scenarios more than others. This combination also reflects the way in which the campaign was written—Gareth Ryder Hanrahan developing and writing from a story design worthy of a Suppressed Transmission by Night’s Black Agents’ author, Kenneth Hite.

The Zalozhniy Quartet starts in quick fashion with an explanation of the conspiracy, its aims, its origins, its participants, and its vampires. The conspiracy is an attempt to take control of one the global levers of economic and thus political power; its origins lie in the post-colonial division of the Middle East and the meddling of an infamous traitor; its participants are the Lisky Bratva, a major Russian mafiya brotherhood; and whatever their exact nature—supernatural, damned, alien, or mutant, as decided by the Director—the vampires have an odd time signature. The latter are the Zalozhniye of the title which actually refers to the number of scenarios in the book, rather than the number of vampires. Rest assured, there are more than just Zalozhniye in The Zalozhniy Quartet. All of this is set up with history, stats for the various NPCs, separate diagrams showing the connections between the NPCs and the arms of the organisation, and so on. 

In addition, The Zalozhniy Quartet includes a sextet of pre-generated player characters. As with other pre-generated player characters in scenarios for the Gumshoe System, these will require some adjustment upon the part of the players—assigning further points, establishing connections and levels of Trust between each other, and so on. Each also comes with a short background, although this is separate from the character sheets. Maps are provided for each of the five main cities that the player characters will visit over the course of the campaign, but not for any of the individual locations that they will visit.

The Zalozhniy Quartet opens in Bourne-style with ‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’. The player characters are employed by independent contractor, Donald Caroll*, to infiltrate a warehouse in Odessa believed to be one more stop on a gun-smuggling operation shifting stolen weapons out of Baghdad and into Europe. This will be their first encounter with both the Lisky Bratva and the Zalozhniye and it will go horribly wrong for both them and their employer. With the Lisky Bratva and the Zalozhniye in hot pursuit, the player characters are forced to go on the run. Their employer will be able to impart the location of his safehouse in Vienna—fortunately considered neutral ground by the espionage world—before he is caught, but getting out of Odessa and across Eastern Europe is challenge in itself even before taking into account the mafiya and the vampires on their tail.

* Man from U.N.C.L.E. fans may just want to change his name to Leo.

There are easy routes out of Odessa, but they are likely to be watched, so the player characters will probably take the scenic route and that means going via some of Eastern Europe’s weirder non-tourist spots. Primarily an extended escape and chase sequence interrupted by border crossings—recognised and unrecognised—‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’ also provides opportunities for the player characters to investigate and disrupt some Lisky Bratva operations along the way before they reach Vienna. These are almost mini-scenarios in themselves, one consisting of a fun attempt to disrupt a sporting event, another uncovering a foul Zalozhniye research site.

Once the player characters reach Vienna, there is a radical shift in tone and adventure type with ‘Out of the House of Ashes’. It is a classic Cold War scenario a la John le Carre, an extraction mission in which the player characters need to get Arkady Shevlenko, a retired KGB general, out of the city before he can give them the information he wants. He also represents the first link into the conspiracy’s origins, and so the Listky Bratva want him as do the CIA, though for different reasons. All the while, the FSB wants to stop them all… This played out against the backdrop of international diplomacy and a economic conference. Where ‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’ is all action, ‘Out of the House of Ashes’ is mostly intrigue and betrayal and counter-betrayal, with the possibility of the player characters needing to make multiple attempts to get Arkady Shevlenko out of the city safely.

The Zalozhniy Quartet again switches to another city, another tone, and another mission type for the third scenario, ‘The Boxmen’. The city is Zurich, the tone a little slicker a la Mission Impossible or Ocean’s 11, and the mission is a classic heist. Of course, it has the capacity to go wrong in the mode of Reservoir Dogs. By now the player characters will have learned that the Lisky Bratva is planning to buy a bank in the city, the same bank that they want to get into themselves to locate one of The Zalozhniy Quartet’s various MacGuffins. So this is very much a matter of casing the joint, gathering intelligence on the bank’s current owners—a family whose members cannot all agree on on the sale, and so on. This is complicated by a rival gang of thieves, the notoriously robust response of the authorities to any threat to its banking industry, and of course, the Lisky Bratva absolutely wanting the sale to go through… This is a much more restrained scenario than either ‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’ or ‘Out of the House of Ashes’, even in its action scenes, but again expect another shift in tone and style for the last part of the campaign.

‘Treason in the Blood’ brings The Zalozhniy Quartet to climax by piling on the action and upping the number of supernatural threats the player characters will face, much in the style of a James Bond movie. Taking them from Baghdad to Beirut to Riyadh, with possible diversion to Cyprus, it includes encounters with the fallout from conspiracy plot’s originators, fearsome monsters—some worse than the Zalozhniye, and of course, the inevitable, one last betrayal…

The Zalozhniy Quartet is thoroughly detailed throughout, such that it is a little overwhelming in places, especially with the number of NPCs that the Director needs to keep track of in some of the scenarios. Any one of the four will take multiple sessions to play through, but the advice and options given are never less than helpful. Whilst the most obvious order in which to play the four scenarios is in the order given—‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’, ‘Out of the House of Ashes’, ‘The Boxmen’, and ‘Treason in the Blood’—they are designed to be played in any order and to that end, links from the other three scenarios are listed at the beginning of each scenario to help the Director run one scenario after another as seamlessly as possible. They also serve as a useful recap.

Although clever, the structure of The Zalozhniy Quartet gives rise to two issues. The first is that, obviously, it does not form a ‘Conspyramid’, the interconnected pyramid structure which the player characters will work their way around and up as they investigate the entwining of vampires, governments, and organisations in order to uncover the bloodsucking conspiracy. This is intended as the classic structure for a Night’s Black Agents campaign, so it is somewhat disappointing not to see it supported in what is really the first set of scenarios released for the horror-espionage roleplaying game. Now that said, the Director can use The Zalozhniy Quartet as is—that is, as a campaign consisting of four, reasonably lengthy and interconnected scenarios, but she can instead take them and slot them into the ‘Conspyramid’ she has created as her own campaign. Then she can forge links of varying strength between these four scenarios and the other nodes in her ‘Conspyramid’. With strong links, The Zalozhniy Quartet becomes an integral part of the Director’s ‘Conspyramid’, but with weaker links, The Zalozhniy Quartet becomes a conspiracy within a ‘Conspyramid’.

The other issue is with the campaign’s climax—or rather with four of them. Each of the four scenarios in The Zalozhniy Quartet has its own climax—or capstone as they are called here—as expected, but depending upon the order in which they are played, the last capstone in the final scenario is upgraded to the campaign’s climax. The problem is that they feel like the finales to scenarios rather than a campaign, and really only the climax to the final scenario, ‘Treason in the Blood’, fully matches the intended scope.

Physically, The Zalozhniy Quartet is well written, fantastically presented and organised, and comes with very helpful staging advice aplenty. It is lightly illustrated, but the black and white artwork is decent. Although there are decent maps of the cities involved in the campaign, what the campaign lacks are maps of individual locations. For the most part, the Director can find or create maps of her own when running The Zalozhniy Quartet, as the descriptions of said locations are sufficiently detailed, but there are locations, such as the bank in ‘The Boxmen’ and the archival storage facilities in ‘Treason in the Blood’ which could have benefited from being supported by their own maps. 

So The Zalozhniy Quartet is not the massive ‘Conspyramid’ campaign that Night’s Black Agents deserves, but that does not mean that it does not present a superbly well realised conspiracy and threat to the future of the world and the means for the player characters to thwart the plot, if not take the conspiracy down. The shifts in tone and adventure type from one scenario to the next are a refreshing change of pace, present opportunities for different player characters to shine, and pleasing encompass a range of espionage styles. Overall, whether as a standalone or a plug-in to the Director’s own campaign, The Zalozhniy Quartet is epic in scope, a gloriously grand affair which showcases how to write and run a horror-espionage campaign.

1 comment:

  1. I've been looking for a good espionage and/or conspiracy game, I will certainly be looking this up. Thank you for introducing it to me!