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Sunday, 15 September 2019

An Orphic Odyssey

The Persephone Extraction is another campaign 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 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.

As with both Night’s Black Agents itself and The Zalozhniy Quartet, the roleplaying game’s first campaign, The Persephone Extraction is a toolkit. It presents another five, 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 more or less in any order. Actually, much like The Zalozhniy Quartet, it is really the middle scenarios which can be run in any order with the beginning scenario run first and the ending scenario run last. Unlike The Zalozhniy Quartet, there is no discussion of the type of vampires that can be used in The Persephone Extraction—supernatural, damned, alien, or mutant in nature—as they are definitely of a supernatural and damned nature. Similarly, it does not give any guidance as to what psychological (and action) Mode—Burn, Dust, Mirror, or (High) Stakes Mode—to run The Persephone Extraction in. The tone of the scenarios though would suggest somewhere between Mirror Mode, the genre’s “wilderness of mirrors” world of shifting allegiances and hidden agendas as exemplified by the best of John Le Carré’s fiction, and the (High) Stakes Mode patriotism of the novels of both Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming. From staging the defence of a secret base in Siberia to an aerial drop onto an extremely isolated Greek monastery, The Persephone Extraction certainly involves a lot of high action, but is leavened by interesting moral choices deep into the campaign and plenty of infiltration—both physical and digital—missions, including deep into legend…

Of course, The Persephone Extraction involves a plot about an ancient vampiric conspiracy, one it combines with a modern conspiracy of bioterrorism, but at its heart is a rich vein of Greek mythology, specifically that of Orphic Traditions. These draw from the legends of Orpheus descending into the Underworld where the Souls of the dead lie. And if you are not thinking about the vampiric possibilities of untold numbers of Souls wanting to return to the world of the living, even if that means coming back as one of the blood sucking undead, then perhaps you are running low on sanguinary sustenance yourself? Yet The Persephone Extraction involves not one conspiracy, but multiple conspiracies in a weirdly contemporary parallel to British politics, and in order to unravel it, the agents will find themselves in Paris first and Greece last, but before they get there, they will have travelled to Barcelona, Moscow and points further east, and Istanbul, though not necessarily in that order…

The campaign opens with Emma Marlow’s ‘The Persephone Extraction’ which takes place in Paris. The Agents are drawn to the city when they learn that someone is using their identities and covers, but to what end? It quickly becomes apparent that they are being set up and clues point to a biological research laboratory in the city and one particular researcher. Who is using the Agents and what do they want from the biological research laboratory and the researcher? This sets up the campaign as the Agents are put on the researcher’s trail after an assassination attempt on her life and she goes on the run. The trail will lead into the laboratory where research into Cold War viruses is conducted as well as deep underground—an aspect that will occur again and again throughout the campaign—and into Paris’ famous catacombs. The involvement of the Agents in what looks like some kind of bioterrorism plot also brings down a great deal of Heat upon them and this will hound throughout the campaign. This means that the Agents will need to make some effort to reduce this Heat as they continue their investigative efforts from country to country, lest the authorities catch up with them.

If ‘The Persephone Extraction’ takes the Agents into the underworld, financial clues point to Barcelona and ‘The Pale Agenda’ by Bill White. This is the shortest of the five scenarios in The Persephone Extraction, involving the world of high finance and more hints that there appears to be more than one conspiracy involved in the plot revolving around the research at the laboratory in Paris. This is the first chance for the Agents to really harm one conspiracy or another, but importantly, learn where the Cold War era viruses came from. This is from Soviet Era Russia and in Will Plant’s ‘Sleeping Giants’, the Agents track the source first to Moscow and then up into the Arctic Circle in an underground facility near a closed city. The latter is a holdover from the Soviet Era, but of course, it is a new era and the workers are no longer working at the mercy of the KGB, but instead live and work in a company town and their employer cares about profit rather than ideology. ‘Sleeping Giants’ has some nicely creepy moments, but then, this is a vampiric campaign, and it also has some fun James Bond moments as it turns up the heat by having the Agents direct the defences of the facility against attack. The advice on handling the defence against the assault is nicely done. By now it should be obvious that the vampires are desperate to obtain this virus.

Heather Albano’s ‘Clean-Heeled Achilles’ is where the campaign gets weird. A combination of missing people and possible archaeological malfeasance sends the Agents to Istanbul, where a monastery stands on the coast guarded by private security behind barbed wire. For Agents and players alike, this is where the mythological aspects of the campaign are at their most prominent as the Agents really descend into the Underworld. Getting in is not easy, but getting out is going to be a real challenge as the Agents confront countless restless souls. This is the weirdest, possibly creepiest sequence in the campaign—and quite possibly in Night’s Black Agents—as the Agents find themselves replicating myth in what is essentially an Ancient Greek Orphic heroquest. As part of this the Agents re-enact the heroic figures of Orphic myth and the Director is given advice on assigning these unknowing roles depending upon each Agent’s backstory, Drives, Solaces, and so on. This exacerbates the unworldly nature of the descent and the return, but it would have been good to see these roles foreshadowed much earlier in the campaign.

Lastly, ‘The People of Ash’ by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan brings the campaign to a close in Greece as the conspiracy’s rich and elite gather to bring its plans to fruition. The finale of the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, comes to mind as the Agents conduct an assault on the vampire’s ancient eyrie. The campaign should ideally end with a bang and ultimately, the Agents may succeed in defeating the greater conspiracy, but not the whole conspiracy. Defeating the greater evil will be enough to save the world, but ultimately it may still leave an evil in place. A ‘lesser’ evil, but an evil nonetheless…

As with previous campaigns for Night’s Black Agents, the middle three scenarios are designed to be played in any order, there being clues from one scenario to another, but the smoother path will be in the order as they appear in the book. Similarly all five scenarios are written such that they can be run as standalone adventures, but really this would be to ignore the greater conspiracy and the greater story that would come with them being played in order. This would be particularly obvious in ‘Clean-Heeled Achilles’ because its emulation of myth would lack the context of the previous episodes, and similarly, playing it early in the campaign may mean that the context has not yet developed enough to quite give it the impact it should.

All five scenarios are well organised, with clear explanations of the spine of each episode, the connections between the scenarios, the various NPCs, and quick and dirty briefings on each of the cities where the scenarios are set. Similarly, the set-up for the campaign is decently done with explanations of the campaign’s plots, conspiracies, conspyramid—the diagram of the conspiracy’s overall organisation, and also a Vampyramid. The latter employs mechanics from the supplement Double Tap to track the blowback and fallout of the Agents’ actions as they investigate the conspiracy. This models the conspiracy’s reactions to the Agents and as much as it makes them organic rather than static, it does add one more thing for the Director to keep track of throughout the game. Lastly, there are the vampires of the conspiracy itself, a seeming series of contradictions—arthritic and old, but breathtakingly fast; pale and spindly, but inhumanly strong; and fearful of death, but have long forgotten being alive. Similarly, they are at their weakest when insubstantial, but all but invulnerable and at their strongest when solid, but then at their most vulnerable.

Lastly, The Persephone Extraction comes with six pre-generated Agents, one of which will require some further details that the others have already figured in. They include a range of nationalities and covers, and can be easily personalised by the players. Physically, The Persephone Extraction feels somewhat rushed. The editing is not as tight as it could be and there is text missing in places. The artwork is not always of the highest quality either and in comparison to other Pelgrane Press titles, it does not feel quite as assured.

Ultimately, The Persephone Extraction is not quite the toolkit that The Zalozhniy Quartet is, for it very much feels more like a traditional, linear campaign. This should not be held against it, because The Persephone Extraction is a solid affair which draws from an unexpected source which the authors have developed into an exciting and genuinely surprising campaign.

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