Described as "the Night's Black Agents Expansion Book" this contains a wealth of additional material for Agents and Directors alike: new skills, new approaches and (of course) new kit. It is jam-packed with ideas and is well worth a read by anyone who enjoys contemporary espionage games. Whilst most of the material is going to be of interest to anyone, irrespective of which side of the Director's screen that they sit, the contents have been divided into an Agent's Companion and a Director's Companion.
The Agent's Companion begins with a section on Abilities. Virtually every ability is examined, with different angles and enhancements on the material presented in the core rulebook. New ability foci are introduced, and there are a whole bunch of ideas as to how both old and new ones can be utilised within the game... not just mechanically (although that is covered well) but in conceptual terms that will inform role-play and descriptions of what the agents are attempting to do (and how!), serving to enhance the game no end. Even what sound on the face of them quite boring abilities, skills you might overlook in character creation in favour of more exciting and cinematic ones, are developed in ways that will give the agent using them a chance to shine and contribute to the success of the mission... and in a realistic way, there is plenty of what a spy would call 'tradecraft' here to enjoy and use in your game.
To add to the fun, each ability's write-up includes a 'tactical fact-finding benefit' which gives an example of how that ability could be used to great effect within the course of a game. There are also 'sample spend benefits' which give quick examples of how you use what you have discovered to mechanical advantage in your investigations and 'sample clues' detailing the sorts of things you might be able to find out. Study these well and hone your use of your chosen abilities. For General Abilities, which follow after the Investigative ones, there are 'sample clues' for when you use that ability to investigate and 'new cherries' to take in the abilities into which you have put the most points.
Although plenty of ideas pop up throughout the Abilities section, the next section looks specifically at Tricks of the Trade. This section focusses a bit more on mechanical aspects with new thriller manoeuvres, customisable achievements and the concept of 'adaptive tradecraft' which explores the extreme uses to which you can put off-the-shelf items, if only you can come up with the ideas! Tne 'manoeuvres' utilise the neat mechanic from the core rules of giving a game mechanical advantage to the player who can talk the talk, giving appropriate graphic descriptions of what his agent is up to. There are some splendid examples, and of course whilst the agent is improvising, the well-prepared player has a few choice phrases ready to trot out when the opportunity occurs. The achievements are a list of stunts which, when pulled, garner the player a bonus. The adaptive tradecraft is reminiscent of the TV series Burn Notice, those wonderful monologues where Westen details various tricks of the spy trade as he puts them into use. Each example trick comes complete with ideas of how to use them in-game and the benefits you might gain.
Next comes a collection of standard operating procedures... but this isn't what you think: these are metagaming concepts to help both players and Director keep the game moving rather than flagging. It's something both should read and make use of - indeed many of them will prove practical whatever game you are playing, never mind Night's Black Agents!
The focus then changes from concepts to kit with the Materiel section. Much of this will sound familiar at least from the movies if not from the technology reports you can find online, but even if you have heard of the stuff now you have the necessary rules to go with it. There's a delightful selection of things you can add to a vehicle... perhaps the only reason there's nothing novel for me here is that one of my gaming friends happens to be a special projects engineer at Bentley Motors (he once came in grousing that he'd not been allowed to test the grenade launcher he'd installed for one client who'd better remain nameless...)! And then, of course, there's a goodly selection of firearms for all the runner-and-gunner agents out there. Even if you are not a gun-bunny you will soon sound like one after working through this. There's even a table of the favourite weapons used by various militaries and other agencies (although the British Army has replaced the Browning Hi-Power with the Glock 17 Gen 4 pistol recently).
Next comes a section on Thriller Contests and Manhunts. This takes the basis of the chase rules from the core rulebook and retools them to suit other situations when it's not your running, flying or driving abilities that are being put to the test. There's digital intrusion, for those times when you just have to hack the planet, pitting hacker against the defending operators. This includes hints on making it sound exciting when nobody's running around visibly doing stuff - for when all's said and done, me hacking (or trying to keep a hacker at bay) doesn't look much different from me writing this review! Then there's regular infiltration, actually physically breaking into (or out of) a facility. You may feel that you can model this adequately with the regular rules, but turning it into a formal contest does have some advantages in terms of making things truely cinematic. There's a parallel set of rules for carrying out surveillance too, and finally there are rules for conducting a manhunt. This last may be a more long-drawn-out sequence, but it too can have you on the edge of your seat as it plays out.
Although he'll have found plenty of use already, we now come to the Director's Companion part of the book. It's all about making the Director's life easier, given that he has to present not just the plot but everything else in the world to a bunch of players that just have a character apiece to worry about. Things like 'cameo NPCs' who fit particular roles and can be trotted out when needed. There are sample ones here, and ideas for creating your own. Each one comes with a basic overview and further notes on how to use him as an asset or a clue, along with ideas on how to present him in play. Then there's a collection of 'establishing shots' to use in the way a movie director uses them: to paint a scene ready for the action to take place there. Each comes with an evocative description as well as a selection of likely extras and cameos who'll be there, clues that might be found there and other ideas to incorporate into the game.
A Monsters section provides a few more critters - and their abilities - to broaden the scope of the core vampire menace, with plenty of suggestions as to weave them in to whatever rationale you have chosen as the basis for your game. And then comes a section on Stories. At the heart of the game is the story we are telling with our players, but here are a few ideas for added elements. Perhaps the conspiracy, whatever it is, that they are trying to defeat does not present a unified face but is rent with internal dissension. What happens if instead of the whole group, you meet up with a single player and have his agent go solo for a while? And what changes will come if you leave the core setting of contemporary Europe and try the Victorian era (always good when vampires are involved!), World War 11 or the Cold War period? These are explored in some detail: try them or not as the mood takes you.
There's a real wealth of ideas here, and you will find yourself visiting again and again to mine this work for useful bits to enhance your agent's performance or add a new twist to your game. Everyone who plays Night's Black Agents really needs this on the shelf (or hard drive) next to the core rulebook.
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Reviewed: 29 December 2013