Cyclopean Deeps Volume II

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Jan 08 2016 - 05:30
Cyclopean Deeps Volume II

The second tome of Matt Finch's massive subterranean sandbox clocks in at 250 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 244 pages of content, so let's take a look!
Well, before we do, let me reiterate for a second what this is and what it means: Well, on the obvious side, this is the second part of the massive Cyclopean Deeps-mega-adventure-sandbox, which, per default, is situated even below the dungeon of Rappan Athuk in the Lost Lands campaign setting - but, quite frankly, there is no place in any given campaign setting you conceivably couldn't plug this into without any hassle whatsoever. Why? Simple: Cyclopean Deeps takes place in an area almost never explored in any given setting: In the unfathomable, lightless depths beyond even the civilizations of drow, duergar, etc.
You know, the place perpetually hinted at, where surface-dwellers are but intruders into a world so strange and different in morality, their minds might fracture; the place, where tentacled horrors abound and odd deities rest in uneasy slumber; a place so weird, it makes some outer planes look cozy and familiar by direct comparison. Here, demon lords and the forces of abyss and hell rank among the beings that still may be considered understandable...normal even. Beyond this deep horizon lies an endless cascade of the deadly and weird, one that rendered the first book in this two-part-saga a worthy part of my Top Ten of 2014...but can this remain on par with its predecessor?
Before we answer this question, let me explain something: While Part I could conceivably stand on its own, it did sport the city of Ques Querax, odd and wondrous beyond belief - and this book with its plots, quests and content does make ample note of said place. While the individual components of this book can be scavenged and taken apart, to properly get the full experience, you should definitely own the first Cyclopean Deeps book and run them in conjunction.
All right, finally, it should be noted, that this is a massive sandbox, complete with really big maps, hex-crawling through the dark and chapters upon chapters of wholly distinct environments that would make good individual mini-dungeons, should you prefer running this in bite-sized chunks as opposed to as a massive sandbox.
All right, and this is exactly as far as I can go into this adventure-review sans SPOILERS. So, please beware that from here on out, SPOILERS reign. Players should definitely jump to the conclusion.......All right, still here? Great! After we have established basic power-dynamics within and around Ques Querax, we now delve into the respective, unique environments and take a look at the more complex and possible endgame scenarios for excursions throughout the Cyclopean Deeps - but before I go into the details, let me emphasize something: The Cyclopean Deeps may be weird, but they are concise in an almost uncanny manner. Much like the best offerings of the Lost Lands, the Cyclopean Deeps breathe a sense of antiquity, with empires upon empires fallen by the wayside, ruins reappropriated throughout time...and not even the inhuman cyclopean deeps are exempt from the eternal waltz of revolution, war and rebirth - but unlike in quite a few modules with storied backgrounds (like a significant array of society scenarios...), there is no requirement for either captain exposition to throw a wall of text at the players, nor is there a strict requirement for the PCs to know it all - instead, much like in the exemplar Sword of Air mega-adventure, what we have here is, ultimately, indirect narrative. If you're like me, you will, for example, shudder as the PCs explore the narrows of Braath and find the remnants of a strange aberrant culture whose mantid servitors, created to embalm their master, took a disturbingly logical step towards "improving" the holiness of their masters - by cutting out unimportant things like living and turning their erstwhile gods into a species bred for death by embalming, fulfilling their task in the most gruesomely efficient manner imaginable - and yes, this and a wicked plan concocted by a demon prince can be unearthed as the PCs explore the mortuaries of the mantid priests - if the PCs avoid death as it lurks around every corner.
Speaking of which: The very utterance of a death god may summon the soul-consuming, fickle godling from its aqueous realm and power-struggles, degenerate things and worse abound and interlace perfectly with the narratives already established in Part I of this saga...just remember, don't speak the name of CHOA-THOOM as you traverse these grottos...or he may take notice of your petty mortal existence...
As much as I utterly the adore this beautifully exhibited mastery of horrific tropes, though, as much as I love the wizard that seeks to recruit the PCs here, it is his devious arch-rival, legendary Jupiter Kwan and his hidden worlds that truly set my mind aglow with possibilities. You see, at one point, the PCs can find a strange artwork of rhizome-like strands that remind you of synapses or worse - turns out that this is the map for his hidden worlds, a kind of demiplane-conglomerate of chaos, stitches together from stillborn realities, crumbling demiplanes and the like - and exploration of this gruesome place within the endless void of Ginnungagap remains my absolute favorite environment in quite a while - not only due to tables upon tables of environmental peculiarities, but also due to the fact that Dark Souls-like mist gates with devious properties find a glorious rendition here, one I'm so going to steal the hell out of. In this chapter, Matt Finch's massive imaginative potential seems to have peaked beyond its otherwise already utterly impressive level.
Now, admittedly, I have not been 100% honest in the beginning of this review: You see, there is a humanoid culture down here - a whole holdfast of duergar mines can be found within the pages of this tome and its concise depiction of a ruthless ideology and the hints towards the malachite city (city of brass for earth, if you need an analogue...) are tantalizing indeed...but there is so much more going on here...and yes, this ties together with the at this point nigh obligatory demon lord that is a part of this area's power-dynamic, obviously constituting another exceedingly powerful evil to play against the vileness found herein...or simply try to vanquish or die trying.
This is ultimately me and my preferences, but surpassing even the grisly narrative shared before, the Orchard of Yiquooloome is, shudder-factor wise, very much the apex of the whole cyclopean deeps for me - a creature of primordial chaos that makes elder brains seem kind, it is here that PCs finally find out the truth behind elder ambergris...much like the origins of the fabled darkmist are explained in another chapter - but I'm not going to spoil that for you. Why? Because I could keep on babbling about the vast imaginative potential herein for ages without truly managing to depict how brilliant this one is.
For your information: We actually do get player-friendly versions of all maps herein and yes, there are ample new creatures, artifacts and the like to be found within these pages.

Conclusion:Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious issues in this massive book. Layout adheres to Frog God Games' elegant b/w-standard and the pdf sports A LOT of great b/w-artworks that capture perfectly the weirdness and sheer jamais-vu-level of wonder the Cyclopean Deeps require. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, though I'd very much recommend getting the absolutely stunning hardcover of the book - as always with FGG-books, it is made to last and features great production values.
Matt Finch, with assistance from Bill Webb, Skeeter Greene and Greg A. Vaughan has crafted a book that not only transcends book Vol. I in scope; in fact, the Cyclopean Deeps, as a collected entity, ranks among the best dungeon sandboxes I've ever read, regardless of the system. Book I was brilliant, Book II may actually be even more refined: There are less old-school-y relic in the rules-language here; the builds are more complex...in short, this is brilliant. I read this book back to back, while revisiting some of my sword and sorcery favorites....and if I'M honest, I found myself reading more CD. The prose of this book, its vast imaginative potential, bespeaks a mind that not only is capable of weaving disturbing and brilliant concepts with short hints, it also exemplifies a journey of exploration while reading it: As a GM, you explore the Deeps while reading this book, and I was not bored for a single second. Beyond being a milestone in imaginative potential, this book is sword and sorcery gold, perfect weird fantasy material for everyone with even a tiny soft spot for weird fantasy, for lovecraftiana, for fantasy that dares to deviate from the established concepts to provide something raw and gorgeous.
A word of warning - this book is very detailed and not for the faint of heart - when a sidebox explains in pretty grisly detail what happens when a PC's body in gaseous form, spread over mile-long in millimeter-thick tunnels, meets a magic-dead field and has his body extend through the caverns, I found myself shuddering and remembering one of Junji Ito's lesser-known, brilliant horror-manga. The Cyclopean Deeps are a place of eldritch beauty, but each and every part of its drives home that this is the place where "man was not meant to tread," combining a superb sense of the exploration of the unknown with a constant, disturbing sense of uncanny displacement and existential wrongness.
That being said, as easy as all of this sounds or may sound to you, finding a final verdict for this book was nigh impossible to me: You see, I can't really fathom and abstract my knowledge of Part I, separate it from Part II. Unlike other such sagas, they BELONG together...but Part I already received its accolades on my Top Ten of 2014 and I have a policy of not awarding spots to the same components twice (otherwise, you'd see Ultimate Charisma, for example, in my Top Ten of 2015 once that hits sites...). At the same time, this is a perfect example for my thesis that Frog God Games has surpassed the roots of 3.X Necromancer Games by leaps and bounds - no matter how you look at it, Cyclopean Deeps ranks among the best old-school modules/sandboxes out there. With intricate attention to details of not only formal criteria, but also regarding the prose, it ranks among the finest, most unique (and horrific!) sandboxes I have ever read.
How good is Cyclopean Deeps? The collective of both books is so good, even among FGG's mega-adventures, I'd only consider it second to Sword of Air, which makes it one of the best mega-adventures out there - PERIOD. My final verdict will hence clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval...and, I will retroactively bestow the grace of the Top Ten spot of 2014 Part I scored also on this beast, since it is a crucial extension of the first volume.
If my ample gushing was not clue enough: I'd strongly recommend getting this masterpiece; in my humble opinion, the Cyclopean Deeps are absolutely mindbogglingly good and transcend Rappan Athuk, which kind of gave birth to these, in their superb environments by leaps and bounds.
You can get this awesome book in eitehr Pathfinder or S&W here on Frog God Games' homepage! 

Alternatively, you can get this masterpiece on Paizo:

 Here's the link for Pathfinder!
And here's the link for old-school S&W!

Frog God Games, master of massive, glorious books, are currently kickstarting Richard Pett's magnum opus THE BLIGHT, a book that may well surpass even these brilliant tomes! The KS has only 9 days left and already is the biggest book the Frogs ever made, so don't miss out on that wonderful monstrosity! Here's the link!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Spheres of Power

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Dec 18 2015 - 01:42
Spheres of Power

Spheres of Power is one massive book - 230 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page SRD, 3 pages of KS-backer-thanks, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with no less than 220 (!!!) pages of content, so let's dive in!
As you can glean from the sheer length of this book, my usual in-depth analysis would bloat this review to extents unprecedented, so instead, I will paint in somewhat broader strokes than usual - also, since, apart from the well-written chapter-introduction fluff-texts, the vast majority of content herein is CRUNCH.
So, the basic principle is pretty simple: Spheres of Power represents an alternate magic system that can work as a substitution for the default vancian casting and alongside it. Personally, I'd suggest using it as a replacement, mainly for a couple of reasons. For one, there is the factor of terminology. Spheres of Power utilizes the term "Caster Level" to mean something different - basically, it could be likened to the base attack bonus and, similarly, there are full, 3/4 and 1/2 progressions for classes and the like you'd convert to the system: Paladins, for example, would adhere to 1/2 CL-progression as "low casters." Saving throws are no longer based on spell levels, and instead adhere to the classic 10 + 1/2 caster level +casting ability modifier, if appropriate. Casting ability modifiers (CAM) are dependent on the respective class used. Casting time ranges from 1 hour to 1 swift action and distances adhere to pretty much the concise close, medium, long distinction we already know from spells.
Characters utilizing the Spheres of Power-system also utilize spell points equal to class level + casting ability modifier. It should be noted that the multiclass rulings for these basic components are VERY smooth and easy to grasp. Spheres of Power also introduces  the MSB and MSD - Magic Skill Bonus and Magic Skill Defense. MSB is equal to total levels in casting classes; MSD is equal to 11 + total levels in casting classes. This becomes relevant in instances of pure concentration or when pitting your magical force against another caster becomes the relevant thing you're trying to do. Concentration is d20+MSB+ability modifier - for spell-level interactions, an effect's spell level is equal to 1/2 caster level, with the option of manifesting a magical effect voluntarily at a lower caster level to render concentration easier. Penetrating SR is done via d20+MSB - simple, elegant and the same ease also works for any call for CL-checks: You instead roll MSB....And that's about the basics. The system's core rules fit comfortably on two pages. That's a GOOD thing. Even better, the presentation is so simple and concise, it renders grasping the system hilariously easy. There also is no divine/arcane divide anymore, just fyi - so yes, false gods and the like...suddenly a much more likely narrative option. It gets better: Magic is divided not into traditional schools and subschools, but into spheres. Each time your caster level increases, you get magic talents - these can be used to unlock new spheres OR to learn special tricks within your available spheres.
You see, each sphere has basic abilities that work at-will (byebye, 5-minute adventuring day/nova issue...)...and others, that require the expenditure of spell points. Hence, you can actually remain relevant as a caster sans burning through your resources and still shine in your core competences - though, obviously, burning through your resources will yield its own benefits. This basic system also allows for exceedingly simple customization of existing classes into the frame-work of spheres of power, meaning you will not be missing out on your favorite 3pp-class or archetype, just because your group opted to go for Spheres of Power.
From the very get-go, this radically changes how magic and particularly, magic specialists, work - you no longer have a specialization represented in things you can't do, but rather by the things you CAN do AND, at the same time, you get magic that is less prone to resulting in nigh-godlike omnipotence casters at high levels - basically, sphere casters will excel at their given fields, with literally your choices each level mattering more than your class or its access to ridiculous amounts of resources, but at the same time, they will be at the same time more restricted. Magic at once becomes more manageable, but also more reliable and less bursty than in the vancian default. A total of 20 spheres are provided and each covers a significant array of utterly awesome options.
Let's take the Alteration-sphere as the first example, shall we? If you're like me and have been delving into the gritty details of shapechanging and its mechanics, you'll have noticed a serious array of pretty complicated details hiding in the proverbial shadows of polymorph-y effects - granted, the issues have been mitigated a bit by Pathfinder, but there still are ample instances wherein a particular modification of one's body becomes problematic and requires some dedicated close-reading. Alteration's basic ability, Shapeshift, requires a standard action to activate and shifts either you or a touched creature, with a duration of concentration. Unwilling creatures receive a save and necessitate the expenditure of 1 spell point to shift.
Additionally, you can expend 1 spell point to maintain shapeshift for 1 round/caster level sans concentration for 1 spell point. The ability is codified properly as a polymorph effect, and yes, we get rules for interactions between shapeshift effects, allowing you to MSB-check to see which shift prevails. Targets affected lose extraordinary and supernatural abilities and instead gain those noted...and yes, equipment and magic item activation is also properly covered. Disguise-interaction can be found and intriguingly, targets can also be partially changed via blank form, granting them e.g. low-light or darkvision, natural attacks (all sporting the proper primary/secondary classification) or cosmetic appearances.
Now this is the extent of things you can do with just access to the sphere - sans talents. Add talents into the fray and things become really interesting: Want to transform into animals or makes other creatures into humanoids? Check. Just affect the mind of the target, for a lycanthrope-like berserk, animalistic state? Check. Add lunging to natural attacks? Check. Poach amid nice monster abilities à la trip or tremorsense? Yup. Size changes? Bingo. You won't be able to do them all unless you specialize, but if you wanted a shapechanger with a focus on the undead and vermin...well, here you go, 2 talents and you're covered. And btw.: I am only lightly touching on the options one single sphere allows you to have...now contemplate what you can build with 20 of them!
Obviously, the material provided herein not only shows some extreme care regarding its rules-language and set-up, it also needs, by virtue of its "alternate system"-ambition, be able to cover the most divisive aspects of magic, the ones with the most potential for issues...and beyond complexity beasts like aforementioned alteration, there are two spheres that pretty much exemplify the basic tenets of combat-centric magic: Destruction and Life. Destruction's base ability is somewhat notorious, since it originally provided force-damage blasts at-will...which is a pretty nasty, since it is the best damage-type you can conceivably have and makes incorporeal foes too easy to eliminate. It is my happy duty to report that the damage-type has since been changed to bludgeoning, rendering the warlock-y blasting the sphere grants as a base ability less problematic.
The scaling of +1d6 every odd level and the limited range still maintain reasons for non-magical ranged weapons to exist, though you can use talents to extend the range - again, a matter of player agenda. Each blast can be further customized by one blast shape and one blast type talent, which allows for some form of control. Now, yes, this is a pretty simple means of adding warlock-y blasting capacity to your caster, but at the same time, this is the one sphere I'm not completely blown away by - mainly, since I'm a huge fan of the highly customizable ethermagic introduced in Interjection Games' Strange Magic-book: The variety there and the unique options as well as the damage-scaling are a tad bit more precise and refined and personally, I consider the resource-management there a bit more compelling...but know what? If you're mathematically up to the task, you can fuse the two/recodify ethermagic as its own sphere - the easy basic structure of spheres of power allows for such blending and ultimate, that is perhaps the biggest strength of the system.
The Life sphere, then, would be the other means by which a system could be broken: After all, this one is all about healing and by now you know how much I loathe any system that provides infinite healing. The Life sphere does just that...and at the same time, it doesn't. The base, at-will ability, allows you to provide temporary hit points to a touched target, but only up to your CL and only when the target is injured - basically, you can band-aid minor injuries, while major ones require the expenditure of spell points for proper healing, which the sphere also provides. While quite a few minor negative conditions and even ability damage can thus be alleviated via the expenditure of spell points, the tying to the resources of the respective character (remember: One pool of points for ALL spheres...), suddenly, we have an interesting resource-management game here that emphasizes the severity of different injuries by virtue of whether they can be covered by invigorate or not. My one gripe here is that invigorate's scaling could have been a tad bit less linear at higher levels, when damage far eclipses its usefulness, but then again, I can modify that to properly fit my own tenets with just a modicum of preparation and basic math. The impressive component with this sphere, at least in my book, is that it manages to provide an infinite source of HP-replenishment without breaking the game in play - even in relatively gritty contexts. Flavor-wise, it also does not suffer from in-game logic issues that haunt similar solutions or healing surges...so yes, consider me thoroughly impressed.
These three spheres, highlighting some of the most problematic potential aspects, should provide enough insight on why this system as a base set-up, has merit...but we're not just left with it. Instead, we get no less than 11 (!!!) base classes.
Since my usual in-depth analysis would bloat this horribly, please bear with me as I'm going through them at an enhanced pace:
The Armorist: d10, 2+Int skills, full BAB, good Fort-save 1/2 caster progression via Wis. This guy can create special bonded equipment (weapon, armor, etc.) with preset enchantments and swap between them on the fly in combat. Like it!

The Elementalist: d8, 4+Int skills 3/4 BAB, good Fort- and Ref-save 3/4 caster progression via Cha. Take the Destruction sphere for free with slightly better elemental enhancements as well as some monk-y tricks like evasion. Another Airbender-esque class. Okay when you're looking for it with Spheres, but I've seen cooler takes on the concept.

The Eliciter: d8, 4+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good Will-save, 3/4 caster progression via Cha. This guy is pretty much the instigator/enchantment-type of manipulator who supplements his spellcasting via 3+1/2 class level hypnotism-abilities; If gaslighting, (de-)buffing and generally being a good face is something you enjoy, then that's a great class for the subject matter.

The Fey Adept: d8, 4+Int skills per level, good Will-save, 1/2 BAB, full caster progression via Cha. If the name wasn't ample clue - here we get the illusion sphere as a bonus talent and generally supplement these tricks with shadow/nature-themed tricks. If creative illusions and fooling foes with nasty tricks is your game, then this is the one you want. Also, obviously, if you like the slightly sinister tint of fey-type material. (In Midgard, this would e.g. be interesting...)

The Hedgewitch: d8, 6+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good Will-save, 3/4 caster progression via either Int, Wis or Cha, chosen at first level. This class chooses a tradition that can be considered a thematic "bloodline"-like concept that represents different takes on the concept of the witch, with individual, exclusive customization options.

The Incanter: d6, 2+Int skills per level, 1/2 BAB, good Will-save, full caster progression via Int, Wis or Cha. This essentially can be summed up as the full-caster grab-bag class - basically, you can trade in things like domains and bloodlines (obviously minus spells and the like) for specialization points, which can be gained by losing the bonus feats of the class in ever-increasing amounts. The class also allows for such specializations to modify the spheres. Nice one.

The Mageknight: d10, 2+Int skills per level, Full BAB, good Fort- and Will-saves, 1/2 caster progression via Int, Cha or Wis. This would be the pala, bloodrager, magus-y garb-bag class. With Stalwart (evasion for Fort-and Will-saves), it has one of my pet-peeve abilities at 3rd level and over all, feels a bit like it doesn't really manage the grab-bag aspect that well...nor its own schtick. Among the classes presented herein, it's perhaps one of the conceptually weaker ones.

The Shifter: d8,4+Int skills, 3/4 BAB, good Fort- And Ref-saves, 3/4 caster progression via Wis, would, surprise, be the kind of druidy/alteration-sphere-specialist that lets you (and allies) go full blown wolpertinger via further natural attack/tricks and customization options.

The Soul Weaver: d6, 2+Int skills, 1/2 BAB, good Will-saves, full caster progression via Cha. This would be the healer/cleric/necromancer-type character that is determined by channel energy and the duality of blessings and blights. Nice one!

The Symbiat: d8, 4+Int skills, 3/4 BAB, good Ref- and Will-saves, 3/4 caster progression via Int. perhaps the class with the coolest fluff: Basically, you have a strange psionic aberration from the far realms/outer dark fused with your very souls, granting better tricks of the Mind and Telekinesis spheres and psionic-flavored additional tricks. Anime-Psion, the class, effectively. I like it enough to be thinking about how to blend this with DSP's psionics.

The Thaumaturge: d8, 4+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good Will-save, full caster progression via Int, Wis or Cha. Theme-wise, this one is a bit occult-y, having the ability to enhance his tricks for the chance of backlash and a general sense of the Spheres of Power-class for the grittier games...make no mistake, though: These guys can still go pretty much blast-happy on foes.

All right, so that would be the base-classes...but that's not even close to the end of this massive book. Instead, next, there are archetypes - in fact, one for each core class. Don't want to do the conversion work? Here's what you need. Neat! The 10-level bokor PrC would be particularly feasible for campaigns featuring both spells and sphere-casting, since it can be envisioned as a hybrid vancian/sphere-caster. Nice if you require the like; personally, I think Spheres work better as a substitution.
Okay, where things get interesting, at least for me, is with the advanced magic-chapter: Instead of smashing these components into the design of the vanilla spheres, the advanced magic talents provided can be envisioned as the rather brutal options: 2-mile darkness? Check. Tsunamis and summoning? Check - This section is absolutely, marvelously, brilliant. Why? Because it does right what so many systems like this do not get: There is a lot table-variation out there. From low-fantasy grit to epic high-fantasy, from magic suffused space-opera to horror-esque sci-fantasy, there are infinite ways to play the game - and this chapter collects the high-fantasy, huge AoE, narrative effects and takes that requirement off the GM's shoulders: No skimming through the spheres and disallowing certain options - simply restrict this chapter (or unlock) it at your leisure and there you go. Quite honestly, this is absolutely stunning: Want to play a game where PCs can unleash tsunamis against dragon-fleets? Allow! Want to play gritty survival at low levels? Ban (at least for the PCs...)! Simple, elegant and as tightly phrased and presented as possible. A joy to read and a fistpump-worthy hell yeah moment if there ever was one. 
Secondly, rituals deserve special mention - know how I mentioned that imho, this works best as a substitution? If you're like me, you will have rolled your eyes and thought: "Oh great, so module xyz, which banks on spell zyx, now won't work." Enter rituals. Basically, this allows you to redesign spells into sphere-based rituals that duplicate the spell's effects and aligns them with spheres. While personally, I'm not a big fan of adding the power imbalance of the triple scaling axis of spells back in, particularly when a module requires the like, a limited system-transparency is thus maintained...and you can still tinker with the casting time (which is increased significantly) even further: This allows magic to have a Sword & Sorcery-style flair: Sure, there is the quick sphere-casting...and then, there is the time-consuming, dread, city-leveling rituals...and you can add wonderful lists of exotic components to the fray for further adventuring opportunities and means for the PCs to foil evil ritualists. Optional pricing and tables of strange effects further supplement this use of the rules.
The Spellcrafting system that allows you to make your own magical effects, at least to me, somewhat pales in its actual requirement (seeing how many spells can be converted), but who am I to complain...particularly when my beauties, one of my favorite sub-systems, incantations, are covered as well? This book, at this point on my initial read, had achieved an almost creepy level of "EZG likes it" - something further escalated by the copious player options that not only manage to get counterspelling and circle casting and contingencies right; no, beyond mere feats and the like, it was the accumulation of casting traditions that further elated me to levels of joy seldom obtained: Basically, you choose boons and drawbacks for casting traditions, representing benefits and drawbacks of individual approaches to magic, with general and sphere-specific ones all coming together in one glorious customization fest that should have both players and GMS alike grin from ear to ear.
Okay, but what about the magic items? One whole chapter is devoted to magic items, crafting and modified effects, further underlining the massively-detailed, holistic approach of the book. And yes, you'd be right in a way that this book may sound daunting at first glance - it's really not. Also thanks to a massive chapter guiding you through the implementation of rules, the cherry-picking process and manipulation/creation of more of them - before actually delving into several brief sketches of sample campaign settings sporting the rules- Oh, and, just in case you're like me a grumpy guy and now would begin complaining about "magic not existing in its own vacuum" and things like "world consistency" - what about no less than 6 sample organizations, including traits and TPA/CPA-levels? Heck yes.
But, you know me: I'll still complain over the lack of NPCs. Well, we get those as well. And skeleton/zombie/animated object toolkits. Oh, and char-sheets.
Editing and formatting are top-notch  -while I noticed very minor inconsistencies here and there (one ability reading: (primary...) while another read (Primary...) and the like, at this point, any complaints about those sound hollow. One pet-peeve of mine makes me constantly cringe, though: The books gets cold damage wrong, constantly referring to it as "frost damage" etc. - something that btw. also extends to the expansion..but at least it is consistent in this glitch.
Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard with ample of original full-color artworks. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and provides an interactive version of the char-sheet. Unfortunately, I do not own the physical copy of this book, so no, I can't comment on that version.
Adam Meyers, Owen K.C. Stephens, Thomas Keene, Ryan ricks - gentlemen, you have me utterly flabbergasted. It's time to come clean here: I wasn't excited about this book in the least. Not at all. I saw the KS and literally thought "Meh, don't need it." You see, the pitch of avatar/fiction-like spellcasting simply didn't appeal too much to me. Damn, was I wrong. For one, sphere casting is much (MUCH!) better balanced than vacian spellcasting and the introduction of the material herein should end the martial/caster-strife for most groups. Secondly, this book actually manages something just about unprecedented: It manages to account for table variations in an almost uncanny way: You can use Spheres of Power with Interjection Games-classes, psionics, Akashic Mysteries...and actually get a balanced, cool game. similarly, you could highly restrict it and go full-blown gritty...or utterly anime-style high-fantasy. This system's modularity is a thing of true beauty, its easy means for potential expansion a milestone. Now granted, there are some minor aspects I am not a fan of - stalwart, the destruction-sphere's blasting and similar elements all didn't blow me away - but see, that's the beauty of the system: By means of its elegance and relatively open design, I see no reason why a capable GM couldn't tweak, mesh and blend the living hell out of this system.
Beyond an increased emphasis on meaningful player-agenda, tight rules-language and a holistic claim it actually manages to fulfill, spheres of power also has these cool tidbits: From the advanced customization to relics and incantations, this massive book takes just about anything you could complain about and tells you "Jep, already covered that...here." This may very well be one of the, if not the most refined, yet open casting systems I've seen in a long, long time - one that still can, but doesn't need to, draw on the vast canon of published Pathfinder-material.
If the above, gushing monologue wasn't ample clue for you: Spheres of Power is a phenomenal book, a tome of a quality you only rarely get to see and one that is, quite frankly, significantly better than the limited KS-pitch back in the day ever made me hope it could be. Spheres of Power is a universally, absolutely superb book, one that cannot only inspire characters or the like - it can inspire campaigns. It is my firm conviction that this book belongs into the library of the distinguished Pathfinder-GM: There is an exceedingly high chance that my next campaign will use these rules (alongside non-vancian casting classes by e.g. Dreamscarred Press and Interjection Games) to take a complete break from vancian spellcasting. Not because I don't like spells and the vancian system - quite the contrary, actually. However, because I believe that using this book and using different spellcasting methods lets you tell a whole cosmos of different tales, of different power-levels and dichotomies between casters and non-casters.
I'll say it again - Spheres of Power is one of the most impressive books I've read in a long while; it may not be perfect, but it is a massive inspiration and I staunchly believe that any group can benefit from at least contemplating using this book when starting a new campaign (or initiating a magic-altering event/switching settings, etc.). Spheres of Power is a milestone-level book I will certainly try to get in print. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars, seal of approval, nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015 as well as the EZG Essentials-tag, since its facilitation for story-telling and its ridiculously high scavenging/system-fusion potential. A stellar tome, well worth every cent of its fair asking price. 
You can get this superb, massive tome here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
If you want to support Drop Dead Studios making more Spheres of Power-supplements, you can do so here on their patreon!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Pixies on Parade

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Dec 11 2015 - 02:47
Pixies on Parade

This module clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 22 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This was moved up on my review-queue as a prioritized review at the behest of my patreons.
I playtested this module with my group of kids, which spans the ages 4 - 11 since this is a kid-friendly module and as such needs to be tested regarding its best age-range - the tabs on my homepage contain the suggested range I'd most recommend this for.
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion - you see, no one likes cheaters and you'll just make the module boring for you if you continue reading.......All right, only GMs here? Great! Every year, the town of Glavnost celebrates a festival most peculiar, dressing up with wings and the like to honor the fully statted town's pixie protectors that keep even the most unruly children from being lost in the forest...failing only very rarely. Alas, one particularly stubborn child named Edwin, seeking freedom from his parent's commands and wanting a life of eternal blissful parade with the pixies, slipped through the cracks - and the Nightmare King, a boogeyman got him, halting his aging process and grooming him to become the successor, a son...a new boogeyman.
After a brief introduction of the key-NPCs of Glavnost, the festivities of the town (which comes with a thoroughly gorgeous map that could come straight out of a children's book) are in full-blown preparation - here, the kids have some time to roam, to mingle with the townsfolk and do some research that may hint at the importance of the pixie parade, the nightmare king and the disbelief regarding the existence of gremlins, in spite of the little buggers being made responsible for many a mischief. The prevalence of fey magic allows for a unique gift here: Imagination magic.
With the power of imagination, the kids can subtly alter reality, which also represents e.g. carts coming around in just the right place to catch falling characters and the like - and yes, if the kids are smart, they'll pick up on this and use it to their advantage! Speaking of kid-friendly: A handy little sidebar covers cartoon violence and how to depict it - for while the adults can't see the gremlins sabotaging the town, the kids can - and thus, the first task is basically gremlin extermination, with 3 sample sabotages being provided.
Eventually, the success of the PCs will earn them the attention of fairy godmother Lista, who fills them in on Edwin's fate - which mirrors a playful way to convey stranger danger's importance as well as acknowledging something: That parents don't tell all stories to the children, worrying it might give them bad dreams. This is something that ultimately, instinctively, all children know - and to save Edwin, the fairy bestows 6th level (previously gained XP) on the players, tasking them to redeem Edwin and freeing him from the Nightmare King's influence.
In order to do that, though, they have to brave Edwin's dark dreams - first, defeating his shade in a game of hide and seek and then, braving toy soldier variant wood golems (the battle featuring a GLORIOUS isometric map!) that are moved around via a giant, shadowy hand. Edwin's hound would be the next task - and here, things become interesting: The poor dog, turned hellhound by Edwin's descent into darkness, just wants to play fetch, but the damn sticks keep burning, resulting in angry fire blasts into the woods...which may cause a forest fire! Here, one can teach about being careful with fire...and the encounter rewards kids thinking and providing a stick that doesn't burn...and reduce the dog back to a regular, non-hellhound pup.
On the, again, lavishly mapped isometric map of the path ahead, fairy circle traps and a tooth fairy await and upon vanquishing the fey, the PCs may get a glitterdust-duplicating Baby Tooth of Edwin. There is another encounter next that offers yet another means to educate and slightly shock: Edwin, thinking he can impress the fey with a present, stole his parent's wedding ring - this item became the symbol his remorse, transforming into a now chained golden dragon that needs to be freed, filling in the PCs on Edwin's crime before turning back into the ring, asking them to present it to Edwin.
...and then, the ground shakes...trees start toppling...and a ravaging, massive stuffed bear of colossal proportions breaks through the trees...and yes, this encounter once again is beautifully rendered in isometric maps of stellar quality...and yes, the massive, powerful Terror Bear is a powerful adversary indeed...but vanquishing him provides a return of the creature to Edwin's teddy-bear of old, which may suppress fear effects.
An then, it's time for the final boss fight: Edwin, accompanied by corrupted, color-less pixies, wants to collect all the pixies for his twisted mockery of a parade...but thankfully, the encounters so far have provided all the components the PCs need to save him: Each of his erstwhile fragments of innocence recovered frees a pixie and, together, they may free Edwin, exorcising the influence of the Nightmare King, freeing raw nightmare power - which is a thoroughly awesome climax: The Nightmare Avatar has powerful, unique powers that the kids may know from nightmares: Like being slowed. At the same time, though, they can use their imagination magic to counter his dread powers in an excellent showdown that may end with the PCs reuniting Edwin with his overjoyed parents - happy ends don't happen on their own; one needs to fight for them...and one needs to do the right thing. This morale, unobtrusively conveyed throughout these pages, it what really makes this shine above and beyond.

Conclusion:Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard by Daniel Marshall and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The copious full-color artworks by Jacob Blackmon are neat indeed. A special shout-out to cartographer Jocelyn Sarvida - the maps of this books are downright BEAUTIFUL, featuring gorgeous renditions of the adversaries, which makes them btw. also suitable handouts. Speaking of which - as the astute reader may have noticed, I did not explicitly state that there'd be 1-page hand-outs of said maps. Well, never fret - as the final piece of awesome, this module does feature a PWYW-map-folio for handouts purposes. Take a look at it if you need any example on how good the maps are...
Stephen Rowe's Pixies on Parade is, in one word, inspired: Mirroring classic tropes of the power of imagination and fairy tales, it never crams morality down the throats of the players, while still teaching what's right and what's wrong. The idea of imagination magic is brilliant as a tool for GMs. Now, as for the themes of the module and its suitability for kids: It's pretty much perfect, mirroring themes of beloved children's tales and not shirking away from important topics, all presented in a child-friendly manner. I can see some very young kids that are particularly sensitive consider the themes a bit frightening, but in my case, the 4-year old enjoyed the module, surprisingly, more than "A Friend in Need," despite being frightened a bit - that depends on the kid in question, though and requires the discretion of the parents - personally, I would have loved this module as a 4-year old, having always had a penchant for slightly more mature stories, even as a kid...and yes, I learned to read at a very young age to read some fairy-tales my parents considered inappropriate...which became my favorites. It is my firm belief that kids can benefit from topics that are not all sunshine and flowers, particularly if they feature a didactic and moral component.
As a reviewer, I think the target age-range for most kids will span the ages of 6+ - and yes, I did not include a limit for a reason. Why? Because this module not only is great for kids. It's just as awesome for adults: Seriously, just tweak the fluff a bit and make it darker and you have a GLORIOUS fairy-tale themed introductory module that makes for a great starting point of PC careers as a prologue: Just let the level 6-blessing revert after the module and skip to adulthood - where you can also add elements appropriate for the process of growing up and paint a bleaker picture.
Pixies on Parade is a downright awesome: From the gorgeous maps to the blending of sandboxing in the beginning and a more linear heroes' journey, this book's themes are concise...and there is not a single boring encounter in this book, not a single uninspired critter or problematic scene, nothing I could complain about. In one sentence: This is a must-have, perfect module for kids, a great module for adults and a book that should be considered simply inspired in all the right ways. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval..and considering the perfection, the fact that it transcends the intended target demographic and the map-folio, I will also award this the status as a nominee for my top ten of 2015.

You can get this superb module here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!  

The PWYW-map-booklet can be found here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

The Reign of Terror

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Oct 30 2015 - 07:46
The Reign of Terror

The latest 4 Dollar Dungeon-module clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 84 pages, so let's take a look!
But before we dive into the nit and grit of this module, I feel obliged to point out some peculiar facts of this book: For one, I provided basic advice for a minor crunch-component that is part of the supplemental information in this pdf. I was not involved in any other way with this book. Beyond that, this book follows the format established by 4 Dollar Dungeons - that means you'll get A LOT of supplemental material herein - spells, items etc. Basically, the idea is to provide a holistic experience and minimize your requirement for book-swapping. Additionally, the pdf does provide all artworks in an appendix, so you can easily print out the pieces and utilize them as hand-outs.
Beyond that, the module offers excessive and sound discussions on the nature of fear in roleplaying games, particularly in the fantasy-horror genre - the observations and justifications for the design-process presented here are more than sound - and the same can be said about the detailed advice provided for the more lethal encounters herein. Few modules provide this level of guidance, so yes, GMs will have a pretty easy time running this - also due to handy tables listing CRs, XP, treasures and encounter-difficulty as well as scaling advice. Of course, the by now traditional, detailed random encounters and traveling information are also provided and, as a bonus, monster-lore for teh GM to hand-out to players, can also be found.
All right, so let's see whether Richard Develyn can maintain his streak of absolutely legendary modules. From here on out, SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No, really. Don't spoil a 4 Dollar Dungeon-module - you'd regret it.......All right...only GMs here? Great! 
So can Richard Develyn write classic horror? I'll let the module answer:"Somewhere deep below the ground lies a vampiric creature of fearsome proportions [...] it stretches its veins, each of them big enough to swallow a tarrasque, through densely packed iron and rock [...] and when these tendrils break through to the earth's crust, a new dynasty of vampires soon comes into being." - and so, an ancient, quasi-cthulhoid menace spawned a vampire dynasty in Maison D'Artère. While subtle, the vampires, supplemented by this vein of terrible power, became a bit too confident - and so, they drew the attention of the order of the lily. Unlike the previous, foolhardy heroes that sought to end the undead menace, the cavaliers did their homework - and targeted a nodule of the vast cthonic creature, plunging the magical lance "Fleur de Lis" into the nodule, pumping poison into the vast creature to destroy it - but such gigantic threats are not easily defeated. Cutting the nodule off from crucial components of the vampiric Great Old One/deity-analogue, the isolated nodule soon turned against the vampires it had spawned - after the blood was drained from the vampires and after the cavaliers had fallen, nothing remained to sate the unholy appetite of the vast creature below castle Rougemord and so, the ancient veins petrified.
The Fleur de Lis, an intelligent weapon with an inflated ego (and a significant paranoia) remained lost, embedded in the ancient, chthonic threat. Now, the order of the lily has tasked the PCs to retrieve the lost item - the first clue of which will force the PCs to explore the tomb of Lemaistre, the fleur's former wielder.
But first, the PCs will get a taste of the walled town of Englouti (full settlement statblock provided), where the module starts, which also will provide a new experience for people familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: Know how the cartography was pretty much the one thing not absolutely superb in the 4$D-modules? How it usually was copious, provided for all areas, but just functional? What would you say when I told you that this one sports absolutely stunning, original cartography, both in b/w and full color? Particularly the renditions of the towns and overland maps are absolutely awesome and not something I've seen in many pdfs, much less ones at this price range, with player-friendly high-res versions provided? Yes, particularly for the low price-point, this is more than impressive.
An interesting note regarding the structure of this module would also pertain to the PCs traveling to the village of Sans-secours, from which the fabled tomb can be reached: You see, it's spring (NOT autumn or winter!) and thus, it is perfectly valid for the PCs to spend some time in the local village while they prepare their expedition to the remote tomb - and 3 weeks of slowly escalating weirdness and foreshadowing are provided for the life there, adding a pretty detailed depiction of the local life and allowing the PCs to form connections, rather than plunging head-first into horror. Oh, and they will probably fall to a bait-and-switch there - you see, the tomb does not hold the lance...or any undead for that matter. All the nice holy water and spells they brought...are pretty useless. Heck, the place isn't even really dangerous apart from one particular creature, but that lairs beyond the tomb.
It's when the trail leads to Rougemord, that things get creepy - fast. The castle's vicinity seems to spawn rather disturbing visions and nightmares  and the approach of the castle is guarded by a creature that fits with the horror-theme in a slightly less obvious manner; that being said, this adversary can TPK foolish groups and provide a nasty hit-and-run adversary. The castle sports massive amounts of ravens, deadly animals, crawling claws - and something I could hug the module for: There's not a single undead to fear herein. heck, even dueling skeletons are animated objects. The exploration of the castle allows the PCs to partake in the horrors that once graced these halls and much of the place's incantations remain...as do some outsiders. From psychopomps to devils, there is a lot to uncover and indeed, some places can be considered micro-puzzles.
Describing the immense amount of detail that the castle is studded with would probably bloat this review to an extent I do not consider feasible in this case - instead, let's skip a bit ahead: Sooner or later, should the PCs not fall to the castle's dangers, they will find those odd caverns...and finally, the lance. Who is a) annoying and not too smart and b) urging them to pull it free. What nether the lance, nor the PCs know, though, is that with the removal of the lance, a strange heartbeat is heard - and no amount of coaxing can properly jam the lance back inside. From here on out, things become rather dark very fast - all lupine creatures within miles of the castle howl to a blood-red moon, as more and more hungry vampire-spawn are released from the slowly revitalizing walls...and it soon becomes apparent that the PCs are in over their heads...massively.
Fleeing the castle precipice under the auspice of hundreds of snarling, lupine creatures, they can witness a friend fall to the maw of a winter wolf - who also constitutes the boss...but not the end. With the sledge conveniently brought by their erstwhile, now dead ally, the PCs have a sledding chance to escape the doom that has re-awakened in Rougemord in a final adrenaline-laden chase sequence. If you've handled this well, the darkness has returned to Rougemord and a new reign of terror will begin...and your players will look at each other in true horror and whisper "What have we done?"
Now if the apocalyptic awakening of a vast clan of vampires and a chthonic elder vampire thing don't fit your plans, fret not - as the module suggests, there is a certain demiplane of dread all too willing to scour the whole region with its misty tendrils...
As mentioned before, the module has copious supplemental information, including the order of the lily, which actually features some intriguing visuals - and if your players are like mine, they may want to take up the order's vow and seek to right the terrible thing they have unwittingly wrought...
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are very good -I only noticed pretty minor issues here and there. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons' printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience AND in two versions - one for letterpack-format and one for the European A4-format for people like yours truly. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The cartography's quality (and particularly, the gorgeous isometric renditions of the places) are beyond what you'd expect to see in such a low-cost pdf. The pdf also comes with high-res jpgs for use with virtual tabletops and, as mentioned before, with plentiful materials for the GM.
Richard Develyn has written the most un-gothic gothic horror adventure I've ever read. That's a great thing. Good horror is NOT, contrary to what 99% of found-footage movies believe, being startled. Neither does it derive its impact from being grossed out. Sure, that can be horrific - but it's not horror. Horror may spring from the grotesque and alien, sure, but that's not what this is about, either. Horror has a psychological component that taps into our psyche with subtle imagery and symbolism - and such symbolism can be found herein - whether it's the idiot child, the twisted mother figure and the like - we may not perceive it consciously, but our unconscious notes these. Hence, this module is decidedly smart - it begins at a stage of innocence with set-ups, which, while foreboding, mirror a certain innocence that is inherent in the fantasy genre. It then begins to dismantle it - slowly, but surely, escalating the threat by making the backdrop, symbolically-charged and the imagery of the lance and the nodule resonate with a primal sense of horror to which one could ascribe perinatal dread hard-coded into our very being. The season of growth, early spring, and the imagery of wolves and ravens with their symbolic charges further supplements this reading - it's these creatures that are the threat in the end, less so than the intentionally pitiful dragon that is featured in the innocent phase of the module.
Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of undead (a stroke of genius design in a genre that all too often is defined by the erroneous assumption that bones, blood and undead are creepy in and of themselves), this module GETS what makes gothic horror work...and one-ups it. While this can be read as a kind of gothic horror narrative, it could conceivably just as easily be read as a tale of cosmic terror or Lovecraftian proportions - the psychological imagery evoked by the module can just as well be externalized to represent a hostile cosmos of adversaries, a glimpse at a world at best indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants. Note that usually, such a reading would be terribly at odds with any remotely related to Gothic Horror: Cosmic terror is existential, pertaining to a reality that is removed from the individual, to a sense of completely alienation from everything. Gothic Horror, on the other hand, is a deeply humane kind of horror, one wherein the internal struggles of the psyche are made into externalized threats - it is deeply personal. The only reason both are often confused is a shared array of backdrops and styles, both of which, however, sport vastly diverging meanings and readings - they may occupy the same physical building, but they do not play in the same house.
Horror must grow - and this pdf takes its time with a decidedly slow-paced set-up, one that has its climax hit all the harder - so hard, in fact, that it can become the nexus of a whole campaign, should you choose to embark on this train of thought. It doesn't have to, mind you - but the potential is undoubtedly there. So what do we have here? We have a module that actually understands what gothic horror is about. Yes, at first glance it does read a bit like early Ravenloft modules - something almost decidedly intentional. However, unlike those "bones & blood are creepy"-modules, it shows a distinct understanding why some of the classic Ravenloft modules worked, while others devolved into sucky hack-fests. 
This knowledge is not something you could easily convey, either in modules, words or artworks - it bespeaks of a deeper understanding of the genre. To the point, where not even aforementioned pseudo-lovecraftian readings of the subject-matter undermine the impact of this book, allowing for one of the very few cases where one could conceivably generate an overlap between the two without losing the impact on either. And yes, should you choose to, you can make the finale less...impactful...but you'd rob yourself and your group of a truly horrific pay-off of epic proportions.
On a personal level, I read this module with some sense of dread, mainly because I've seen A LOT regarding gothic horror - I've dabbled for many years in all of its forms and representations, not only in the context of gaming. However, Richard Develyn once again displays his vast and diverse talent by portraying yet another genre in a way I have not seen done before - the design-decisions, imagery and brave ending to the narrative conspire to make this module one that will leave your players at the very least gulping, at the best rather shocked...stunned even. Not via a cheap, narrative trick, but by virtue of all those little symbols and pieces falling into place with an almost audible "thwump." This module could have been the plot to a classic tale by Poe, had he had a background of fantasy roleplaying games - what more can you ask for?
One more thing: If my above explanations made no sense to you, feel free to contact me and I'll elaborate. And if you don't care about any part of this, just run it - you'll understand what I meant once you've completed this module...
Richard maintains his streak - this is the 7th module IN A ROW, all wildly different in focus, story, structure and genre, that gets 5 stars + seal of approval AND status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. In case you're wondering - yes, so far ALL of these seven featured in the final top ten for their respective years. These modules aren't simple adventures - they are stimulating, smart art that can be appreciated on a whim or analyzed in-depth. In either case, you won't find a module even close to this level of quality anywhere near this price-point...or beyond that, for that matter. Dear adventure-authors (and particularly, anyone who throws the term "gothic horror" around willy-nilly without knowing what it means), take heed - this is how it's done in a fantasy context without losing the impact the genre requires to thrive.
You can get this superb module here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Wed, Oct 28 2015 - 05:14
The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)

The Esoterrorists clocks in at 161 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, leaving 155 pages of content, so let's take a look!
I received a print copy of this book for the purpose of providing a critical and unbiased review. This book was moved up in my review-queue due to this fact.
The Esoterrorists is the game that originally introduced the GUMSHOE-engine, which has since then been used in quite an intriguing array of systems that provide some overlap and options to combine them.
The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative Cthulhu-horror game - and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system's engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects...well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game defined by a focus on the story and roleplaying investigations, as opposed to tactical encounters.
Esoterrorist's 2nd edition can be pretty much considered to be the most easy to learn of the GUMSHOE games - the book can be considered to be the basic-version of the rules, without the more complex additions of other variants. From a didactic point of view, this book does a great job explaining the system - to the point where I tried handing it to someone not familiar at all with GUMSHOE. The lady cooked up a character and understood the system almost immediately. So yes, the presentation here is de facto better regarding its user-friendliness than in comparable GUMSHOE-games.
The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term "ability" here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Document Analysis, Flirting - you get the idea. Now here's the cincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You're one of the best in the field - auto-success. I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource - you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the GM has a different task, as do authors - the structure must, by virtue of the game's design, provide multiple ways towards the end. Expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations: You can't provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)The abilities not related to the field of investigation directly would be general abilities: These follow different rules and contain melee (via scuffling), health, stability, etc. - here, failure is a distinct possibility. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest.
So that would be the basic system - it is simple, elegant and, as you may note, bereft of e.g. complications like the cherries provided in Night's Black Agents. While this makes the rules-frame of Esoterrorists less intriguing than that of comparable GUMSHOE-titles, it does provide a crucial advantage - adaptability: Basically, you can graft all specific GUMSHOE-rules you want into esoterrorists: From Night's Black Agent's thriller combat to Fear Itself's (review coming!) psychic rules or any combination thereof, esoterrorists ultimately represents the most effortlessly customizable of the GUMSHOE-games: Whether you're looking for pulpy action or face to the grindstone horror, the system can be customized for just about anything. Oh, and since it is set in our contemporary times, Trail of Cthulhu + Esoterrorists = Cthulhu Now...or Delta Green -as just some examples.
But this is not simply a rule-book - it is also a campaign setting. I do not own the Fact Book (which is a player-handbook, or so I believe), but all you actually need is in here. The basic premise is pretty simple: The investigators work for the OV, the Ordo Veritatis. This organization is an ancient secret-service-type of order that seeks to protect the unwitting mortals from the dread creatures that seek to invade our world from the Outer Dark. No, the OV is not going to inevitably betray the investigators. They're actually the good guys... Yeah, I know - crazy, right? I'm pretty much as stunned by this as you are! It is pretty interesting to note that the book actually contains specific information on how investigations are handled - for the players!
Procedural protocols, if you will, with different levels of staffer-experience for the analysis backdrop of the OV, add a significant level of awesomeness to the campaign setting as presented and provide further options for tight, fun roleplaying - you want your capable support-guys back at home to live, right? After all, if Jefferson hadn't known about this obscure bullet coated in virgin's blood and mandragora, you'd all be dead by now... Oh, and there's this other thing you should know: Veil-outs are crucial...for a reason.
You see, the basic premise of esoterrorists is that there's a struggle going: Basically belief and perception shape our world and what we have achieved with our enlightened society means that the laws of physics are strengthened. If belief in them fades, the veil gets thinner. Horror, breakdowns of how the world works etc. means that the membrane that shelter us from a world of horrors thins. Esoterrorists, the enemies of the OV, seek to let more entities into our world and spread terror and fear simply because the breakdown thins the membrane between our structured world and one of infinite possibilities, of innumerous nightmares - and from power to megalomania, there's a lot to be gained here. The intriguing component from an academic point of view here would be the fact that this echoes perfectly the idiosyncratic perceptions of reality we all are subject to, the psychology of our weltanschauung. 

Where in Cthulhu, the default assumption is that ignorance constitutes bliss, here, it is an ideology that keeps us alive. And yes, this means that you actually can blend both in intriguing ways. It also is absolutely tailor-made to evoke themes like that of the Silent hill-franchise, where doom and dread and a world most twisted lurks beneath the surface - when the veils thin and there's a breach, things start to become odd, horrific...dangerous. Thus, more so than anything else, deniability, the cloaking of what's truly going on, is justified as a thoroughly noble cause. This simple set-up lends a level of believability and concise motivation to the default campaign setting that is absent in most similar games. It also provides a superb justification for the procedural protocols of dealing with the creatures from the outer dark. The OV's ethics and code of conduct are impeccable and allow you to actually play the good guys - which is something relatively rarely supported by such games.
Another analogue, beyond the Silent Hill-one, would obviously be Hellraiser - and indeed, the creatures from the outer dark sport, at least in part, overlaps with these beings. However, what truly sets them apart would be that they get what horror is all about. The esoterorists sport, in some way, relatable motivations - while twisted and insane, there are some sample cells that resonate with the deepest, darkest parts of our psyche: From violent bikers beaten into submission by an entity of twisted bones and jagged thorns to collectible-card-game-players conjuring twisted images from the cards to those looking for deviant sexual experiences with beings from the outer dark, the cells (and sample adventure-hooks provided) are nasty and diverse. What about a club of serial killers who meet once a year to engage in a particular vile tradition? Or a nasty international financial conspiracy? From the personal to the geopolitical level, there are a lot of intriguing hooks here.
But they fall short of the creatures introduced in this book. The beings here are truly horrific in that they play with human fears, are both iconic and innovative and still sport a level of personal connection that is downright genius. Know how in Silent Hill, the monsters are visualizations of anxieties, guilt-complexes and traumas? Well, this one kind of goes one step further. There would be the Discarnate, for example - a shapeless, incorporeal entity, a ghost in the machine in the vilest sense of the word. Not only is the dread potential of these creatures vast, their means of creation (and stopping them) is downright disturbing: To create a discarnate, a cell of cults has to build a tomb r tunnel, then ritualistically slash their wrists and collapse the tunnel upon themselves - the entity then takes some components of the personalities and minds of the targets and begins its assault. How do you stop it? My dear readers, I'm not going to spoil that!
What about the Nester? Creeping towards sleeping victims (preferably obese or pregnant people), these creatures jab their hooks into the target, scoop out the abdomen and crawl inside, sealing the belly behind them. Yes, that's not only nasty, that's friggin' nightmare fuel! Or what about a creature that essentially is an outer dark variant of an STD, urging its victim to infect even more targets? Yes, these creatures are disturbing, and delightfully so. However, this fact is further emphasized by the glorious b/w-artworks provided for them - or what about The Host, outer dark entities that thrive on religious mania, subjugating believers and feasting on others? Words clearly fail me here, for however hard I try, I fail to properly evoke how exceedingly well-written these creatures are. But perhaps one example of artwork from within the book helps me make my point:

The prose is even creepier than that. And yes, there is a creature-book on these beings, but alas, I do not own that one.
But let's get back to the task of the GM here, shall we? Basically, the book's user-friendly nature extends to the task of the GM: Advice on clue-structures and the like help create structures that make the respective scenarios easy to run. Char-sheets are provided alongside an extremely handy investigator matrix that helps the GM keep up to date with agent resources and skills. There is also a handy ability-check-list ( so you don't accidentally construct your scenario to include an ability the PCs don't have), a handy scenario-worksheet, adversary-sheets and a sheet to track an esoterrorist cell and even extremely detailed station duty worksheets - 3 of them!! A massive 3-page index also makes using the book very easy on the GM.
I mentioned station duty, didn't I? Well, while the default assumption is one of supernatural agent-gameplay from case to case akin to Millennium or X-Files, the other default game-style is that of station duty: Essentially, there are some places where the membrane threatens to thin - agents of the OV are then sent to the area for long-term operations. In this case, we get a COMPLETE TOWN. No, I'm not exaggerating - there is a massive, completely detailed small town provided here: With copious amounts of NPCs to interact with and hundreds of possibilities: Almost each character has several optional story-threads you can or cannot follow, threads which may turn into pure horror. It's hard to properly depict the level of excruciating detail, from establishing cover identities to the disturbing concepts provided here. Let me just say that this section is the closest to a proper Twin Peaks/Silent Hill-simulator I've ever seen. In case you didn't know - these two franchises constitute some of my favorite pieces of media...ever. Add to that a significant array of delightfully twisted hand-outs from which clues can be extracted and we have a section that may justify getting the book all on its own - it's basically a whole sandbox-campaign, all ready for you and your players.
Speaking of sandbox...

The book also sports a short sample scenario with Prophet Operation Bungo, which, contrary to the tradition of sample scenarios in core/campaign-setting-books, actually is fun, delightful and more detailed than I would have expected.

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an extremely slick, stylish and atmospheric 2-column-b/w-standard and the pdf provides several downright legendary b/w-artworks. The pdf comes with an EPUB and a MOBI-version and a printer-friendly one...but quite frankly, I'd strongly advise you to get the print. The paper is thick and glossy, high-quality and if you're anything like me, this will be used A LOT.
I'm a cthulhu-fanboy and thus, it should come as no surprise that I got Trail of Cthulhu back in the day. My friend Paco got my Night's Black Agents, which is a glorious game. I never got Esoterrorists and wouldn't have bought it - the title and concept didn't particularly appeal to me, so why bother?
My gut-feeling and instinct was never this wrong in my whole reviewer's-career. This is the best horror-book I've read in years, regardless of setting. Let me elaborate: After more than 15 years of obsession with vampires and the cthulhu-mythos, both themes have become kind of predictable to me. I *love* both, but at one point, games focusing exclusively on either ultimately become the doom of horror - predictable. We fear what we do not understand. As soon as we get our oomphteenth Mi-Go or Yithian, their horror is lost, they become predictable foes. Similarly, vampires can, in the long run, lose their fascination. This is, ultimately, what made me turn my back on the GUMSHOE-system for a while and the primary reason I did not start reviewing books of the system sooner - I was burned out on the subject matter and so were my players.
Esoterrorists changed that.
You could argue that I've never played a vanilla esoterrorists-game. You'd be right. What I did when this book hit my shelves, was something different: I dusted off Night's Black Agents and added the whole concept of the membrane to the game, introduced entities from the other dark and recruited the agents into the OV, which, of course, was among the organizations the vampires sought to infiltrate. I added creatures of the outer dark and the station duty town to my trail of cthulhu games. And suddenly, they were new - disturbing, fresh and diverse. Beyond resonating with iconic themes and a fresh perspective, this book is not only innovative - it GETS HORROR. No, really. This understands horror to a point that bespeaks not only the vast talent of Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as writers, it also constitutes an eureka-effect I haven't had in ages - this humble, little book has inspired me to an extent I have not experienced since I first stumbled over Ravenloft and Planescape back in the day. It is incredibly frustrating to me that I cannot properly put the genius of this book into words, cannot convey the level of impact this book's ideas have had on my games.
Don't get me wrong - Night's Black Agents is quite frankly the better game regarding pure mechanics - it's more complex, more diverse and the thriller combat and chase rules are exceedingly smart. But, at least to me, Esoterrorists is a book that's infinitely more compelling because its prose, the concepts provided, are just so incredibly compelling, because they feature the experience of jamais-vu and because the horror presented here actually really strikes home: This is not blood and guts, this is psychologically disturbing in the way that only great horror is - where the true ramifications are slowly build up. This is the antithesis of the jump-scare-movie - this is smart horror that sticks with you.
This is not only a game - Esoterrorists is basically, a gigantic, awesome template that can be applied to just about any horror game you can conceive. It works in a plethora of contexts because its theme resonate with our very basic, human psychology.
It is my firm conviction that this book belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM looking for inspiration regarding horror-settings and how to create compelling set-ups. If you're playing ANY GUMSHOE-game, this book can be considered a vast amplifier: The concepts within this book are so incredibly compelling and fun, they managed to re-ignite my spark for cthulhu-related material by virtue of the means by which you can use the content herein to enhance the world of the mythos.
I haven't been this excited by a book, any book, in a long, long time - even only as an idea-scavenging-ground, this book is superb by any definition of the word. And know what? While my Top ten-list of the year usually is restricted to Pathfinder-supplements, I will grant this one status as a candidate - its contents and ideas are simply too compelling and can be a vast inspiration in ANY context you can conceive. I firmly believe that simply reading this book makes you a better horror-GM, even if you ignore the rules and setting. You won't be surprised, then, that I'll add my EZG Essentials-tag to a book that scores 5 stars + seal of approval, a book that blew my mind.
If horror interests you even in the slightest, if you even tangentially like smart, psychological horror, if you even remotely enjoy Twin Peaks, Silent Hill, The Evil Within, X-Files, Millennium and if you really want some fresh wind in your respective horror of preference, then this book should go right to the top of your to-buy list. It's that good.
You can get this superb book here on OBS!
A Free preview can be found here!
Want a free supplemental recruitment book for OV-agents? You can get that here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Night's Black Agents (GUMSHOE)

RPGAggression - Lou Agresta - Fri, Oct 23 2015 - 03:54
Night's Black Agents (GUMSHOE)

Night's Black Agents, as a hardcover, is a massive 232 page-book, with 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, which leaves us with 227 pages of content - so let's take a look!
Wait for a second - before we do: Yes, this means I'm branching out into GUMSHOE, at least occasionally. Why? Well, I actually got Night's Black Agents as a present from a friend of mine (thanks, Paco!) and had been playing with it for quite some time. Before I get into the nit and grit, let's start with a brief discussion of GUMSHOE, the engine of this RPG.
The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative horror game - and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system's engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects...well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game all about the brains, less about the brawns. 
The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term "ability" here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Data Recovery, Law - you get the idea. Now here's the clincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You're one of the best in the field - auto-success. I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource - you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the director (or GM) has a different task, as do authors - the structure must, by virtue of the game's design, provide multiple ways towards the end. expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts  -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations - you can't provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)
There also are general abilities, which follow different rules that allow for failure. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest. Points to buy abilities from depend, btw., on group-size. General abilities contain Athletics, Disguise, Driving, Hand-to-Hand, Shooting...and, obviously Health and Stability. So yes, that's about it. No, seriously - investigative and general abilities. that's it. Simple, right? The more dice you spend, the higher is your chance of success. Cooperation between characters is still an option and groups may piggyback on the best character's action by spending less points.
So, this would be the basic set-up. Now, as you can glean from the set-up, combat is not nearly as complex or diverse as in PFRPG or 13th Age and indeed, the system lends itself to a higher lethality-level. There is also an evident problem for anyone familiar with similar set-ups: Essentially, the set-up boils down to resource-management, which means spreading abilities etc. makes sense. Inexperienced players may end up sans points in their key competences right in the middle of an investigation. This is intentional, mind you, and part of the challenge - each spent should be carefully considered. Agents do not exist in solitude - hence, in most game-styles, there are sources of stability that help you from going off the deep end - from causes to persons, these are your anchor in the world, what keeps the character sane - their sources of stability.
So that's the vanilla set-up of GUMSHOE. Night's Black Agents, to me, has one of the best, if not the best version of the GUMSHOE-engine, though - at least for any game that is at least slightly pulpy. The book sports so-called thriller combat rules, which allow for the stunts we all know and love from the spy genre's fiction and it also offers "cherries." 8 points in a given ability unlock the cherry, which means you get something awesome: You're either less ridiculously easy to hit with guns, get a wild-card die-result you can substitute for another roll, automatically bypass most doors sans test...yes, this would be iconic and interesting specialization options, which coincidentally also help with the spread-problem.
Design-wise, it should also be noted that Night's Black Agents is one of the smartest, most professional games you can get for its focus: What do i mean by that? We *ALL* have different concepts of what spy thrillers should be like - gritty and psychological? Far-out and action-packed? Well, this book offers different game-modes, which handy glyphs denote. These game-modes represent different approaches to the genre and play in vastly different ways: "Burn" focuses on the psychological ramifications of spy-work and damage. While the default of Night's Black Agents is a Bourne Identity-like cinematic set-up, "Dust" allows for gritty, lethal, lo-fi rules that would also gel perfectly well with noir-aesthetics. "Mirror" would be the ultimate game of shifting alliances, betrayal and trust - intended only for mature groups, here betrayal among players and contacts, constantly shifting allegiances and the like generate a feeling of paranoia. Finally, "Stakes" is probably most in line with classic James Bond - it's the high-risk "In service of a higher cause" type of gameplay. All of these are supported, and, to a degree, they can be combined by a capable director. The result being that this is not a simple monolithic rules-set, but one that has a massive array of support for table-variation built into its very foundation.
EVERY other game-system I know (and quite a few designers) should take a careful look at this design-principle - here, we have support for A LOT of table variations and playstyles. And yes, this extends throughout the whole game's presentation, from chases to the primary antagonists.
Which brings me to the next point: When I got this book from Paco, I wasn't that thrilled - As I've been rambling on about time and again, I have VERY specific notions of what vampires should be. Well, the primary antagonists of Night's Black Agents, the conspiracy of vampires the agents face, is nothing less than brilliant in the way that it extends this modularity to the very concept of vampires: Instead of providing a monolithic hostile force that was bound to limit and disappoint some groups, we get a vast toolkit for your own vampire customization, with abilities marked with handy glyphs: Whether due to a mutation of the Marburg V-virus, as descendants of Dracula's lineage, supernatural creatures or even aliens, a plethora of vampiric themes is supported...yes, including the classic "servants of hell"-trope. And, once again, options are provided without making the material presented prescriptive in any shape, way or form. Sample characters can be found here to highlight the potential of the adversaries and infection/becoming a vampire also has a different set of conditions. Perhaps you're one of the weirdo GMs like yours truly and want something far-out? Well, from Camazotz to the Lamia, quite an array of kind-of vampiric adversaries are provided for your convenience.
Combat, btw., is significantly more rewarding here than you'd think - the new cherries and various options, from expert martial arts to feinting mean that this book's combat-section can be considered the most refined among GUMSHOE games. Special tag-team benefits allow btw. fr the combination of abilities for rather intriguing effects. The book also sports several hazards and how to deal with them in the context of the rules  -from falling to acid to toxins, there is enough out there to kill your agents..or drive them mad. A significant collection of stability-loss samples and concise rules for mental illness, PTSD and the like, are provided - and yes, in mirror games, multiple personality disorder may turn you into your own adversary.
Directors also may benefit from the easy means f tracking "heat", i.e. the level by which your agents are hunted. Tools of the trade, both subtle and of the flamethrower-variant and tricks of the trade, from covert networks to safe houses - there is a lot going on here - and even with the relatively broad strokes I'm painting with here, I have no true means of covering the whole book sans bloating the review. So, I'll instead comment on some aspects.
The advice to players-section is gold. Yes, you can win. Yes, something horrible is gonna happen - this is a horror game. Get an exit strategy...this short section should be something featured in any investigative roleplaying game - it also helps players succeed and not be stumped. (Contrary to popular myth, GUMSHOE does lead to dead-ends once in a while - not via investigative abilities failing, but due to the human factor...and that is a good thing, as it makes the final triumph sweeter!)
Directors of the game can officially start grinning, since at this point, it is time for me to tell you about another great aspect of this book: Beyond the excessive modularity of the rules presented, the book acknowledges something: Investigations are HARD. No, seriously. Any GM of any game who has ever tried to write one will have come to this conclusion - much less speaking of a whole friggin' campaign! The solution, obviously, is to give the director the tools for the trade - and partially, the system's insistence of modularity, hard-coded into the very rules, already does that pretty well. But the narrative structuring of the frame-work still is an issue - so we get the downright genius Conspyramid. You have various levels, where you generate a flow-chart diagram of your own vampiric conspiracy...but beyond this, it's the advice that really matters. If, e.g., you follow Stoker's classic means of identifying vampires (or that from folklore), this will have repercussions on how your game works: Do they show on smart-phones and cameras? is a bite enough to doom you? Can vampirism be cured? If so, how? Only before or also after the transformation? The level of detail is staggering. Want more? What about a concise list of Europe's backstage intelligence agencies and military OPs as well as detailed information on criminal syndicates and the like? Quick and dirty city building, alongside concise and detailed examples provide glorious backdrops and advice on how to handle the grand game of spy-craft. On a meta-concern beyond individual design, advice on pacing and structuring of operations, pyramidal structures of antagonist motivations - the structuring advice provided here in not only great and valid within the frame-work of Night's Black Agents and reaches almost the level of a full-blown GM-advice book.
So, what about EVEN MORE modifications? Perhaps you don't like the vampire angle - no problem: The book has rules for straight, non-supernatural spygames. Or perhaps, you want gameplay with agents that also have supernatural abilities like remote viewing? Supported. The latter especially is interesting, since it offers plenty of support in conjunction with other GUMSHOE-products...nothing keeps you from re-designing that cthulhu-material, after all...
A brief and solid entry-scenario can also be found in this book, though that would be the one component where Night's Black Agents does not fare as well as other GUMSHOE-products - the scenario is solid, sure - but, as you'll see next week, there are better ones out there. A further reading list concludes the main text of the book.
The addenda contain exceedingly handy director-tracking sheets, worksheets for vampires and cities, operation sheets, an easy director-cheat-sheet of crucial rules, thriller chase summary cheat-sheet and rules, the same for thriller combat options, conspyramid-sheets to print/copy and use,  ability summaries (also for refreshs), an agent record sheet, indices and a handy main index for navigation.
Editing and formatting are apex-level awesome - no significant glitches in a book of this size. Wow. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read 3-column standard - which I usually really don't like - in most of the cases, 3-columns render the page's visuals cluttered. not so here. In fact, due to the excessive modularity of the system provided, it actually works to the book's benefit as a structuring element here. The artwork ranges from somewhat comic-y (and less awesome than I've come to expect from Pelgrane Press) to the glorious style of the cover. Btw.: Quite a few non-gamer friends have commented on the cover artwork being absolutely stunning. I concur. The book's dead tree hardcover is a thing of beauty and if you intend to play this game, I certainly advise you getting it. Now originally, I did not have the electronic version of Night's Black Agents - by now I do. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and symbols among the bookmarks for your convenience, making navigation very simple. The book also comes with an EPUB-version, a MOBI-version, Agent's Dossier, the first module from the Zalozhniy Quartet (review forthcoming) and the BETA 2-version of the Night's Black Agents Android App. There also are free resources to be downloaded online - scroll to the bottom of the review (at least on my homepage) for the link.
Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents is one damn impressive tome - the setting provided is concise and managed, in spite of my VERY STRONG opinion on vampires, to avoid annoying me. This book is all about options - it is a toolkit par excellence that does not force any playstyle on a given group, instead opening up a vast plethora of diverse choices and options for anyone to pursue. The rules are explained in a concise, easy to grasp manner and are so simple I managed to convey them to people who had never played RPGs before in less than 10 minutes. Granted, that's a strength of GUMSHOE as an engine.
However, beyond utilizing the strengths of the engine itself, this book resolves several crucial points of criticism with the engine underlying the setting - the diverse rules not only allow for different playstyles with different foci, it also mitigates some of the less inspired components of the engine by adding (optional) complexity that renders gameplay more diverse and ultimately, rewarding.
The single, biggest crucial strength of this book is that its modularity extends beyond the reach of its implied setting - in spite of the great presentation and concise rules, the concept of spies vs. vampires, to me, seemed rather monolithic; the issue of Cthulhu-games, if you will: You (kind of) know what to expect. Well, the beauty here lies in the options: You can easily combine this book with other GUMSHOE settings and systems. Want to go Cthulhu NOW with ToC? Get this. Want more combat edges and action in Esoterrorists? (Yup, review coming up!) Get this now. The engine-tweaks introduced herein render this book an imho non-optional, massive toolkit for GUMSHOE that enriches ANY game based on the engine, not only the intended playstyle-verisimilitude. Which also deserves credit galore - the level of detail and support for the director should be taken as the level to which all games should aspire to.
Apart from the vast diversity of options (none of which are neglected or considered superior), the sheer attention to detail regarding the finer points of conspiracy-creation and the like retain their validity even beyond the confines of this game. Oh, and then there's massive array of supplemental material, the fact that you literally can derive so much awesomeness from this book. If you play GUMSHOE, any GUMSHOE game, and always felt like the engine had more to offer, then you should consider this a must-buy book. If the theme even remotely interests you, well, then this should be considered a unique and rewarding game to play. Night's Black Agents is, by any measure I apply, a superb game. My review may not reflect this 100%, but I tried VERY hard to pick this book apart - but quite frankly, there is nothing worth complaining about. Sure, its combat will never attain 13th Age's or PFRPG's level of complexity. But neither will those systems ever come close to the investigative caliber of this book.
If you're looking for a change of pace, for vampires in your GUMSHOE game, for a glorious investigative game, for a rules-expansion of the highest caliber, for any of the above virtues- then there's no way past this book. 
My final verdict will be 5 stars + my seal of approval, accompanied by being tagged as an EZG Essential-book for GUMSHOE. Once I've reviewed enough books of the system, I will provide the corresponding Essentials-list.
You can get this absolutely glorious vampire-spy-thriller-game here on OBS!

Those free materials I mentioned in my review? Here's the link to them!

There's one more thing: You see, there currently (until Halloween!) a pre-order going - the core book, plus the director's handbook, plus the Dracula Unredacted? What's the latter? Well, perhaps the most ambitious hand-out in gaming history - the original Dracula novel, commented and suffused with lore that pertains to Night's Black Agents! Yes, this is the equivalent of a cthulhu mythos tome-handout. Damn cool and something I'm very excited to see!

The pre-order bundle can be ordered here at 10% off.

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs
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