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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: The Zalozhniy Quartet (Night's Black Agents)

The Zalozhniy Quartet aims to bring to Night’s Black Agents what the core game lacks: something that’s ready to run without too much preptwork. Of course, everything is relative, and Zalozhniy Quartet still retains some of the “toolkit” mentality of the core game event though it is a campaign. This is, by and large, for the good, since the toolkit aspects here are very well done.

The campaign consists of four semi-independent parts, linked by a core background plot. The clever bit is that they can be played in any order; each one has multiple entry and exit point suggestions, some depending on PC actions and some on what the GM wants to do next. The links are very well done, giving the GM lots of ways and means to build the story… assuming he/she has read the thing multiple times; it’s a somewhat complex story with lots of moving parts, so quite a bit of prepwork (as in “reading and re-reading”) is needed here. The campaign also follows the core game’s line in not precisely defining what the vampires are, that is still left up to the GM,

Plotwise, the campaign contains an extremely nice mixture of moods and subgenres. As presented in the book (remember that the order is not set in stone), the first part, “The Zalozhniy Sanction”, has the PCs trace some gun runners in Odessa. Predictably, things are not quite what they seem and things will most likely go south, in a big way. This is an “action movie” segment, mostly. Next up (in book order) is “Out of the House of Ashes”, which involves old-world spooks and social skills – if someone pulls a gun here, things have gone very, very wrong. It’s a huge change of pace from the previous part.

The third part is “The Boxmen”, which is a heist story. The PCs will need to figure out how to get access to the contents of a Swiss bank vault. Cue Ocean’s Eleven (or maybe some other movies, if the PCs try for brute force). Lots and lots of room for PC (and player) tactics and planning here.

Last is “Treason in the Blood”, which has the closest ties to the background plot, and involves ancient plans (which the PCs will hopefully disrupt). It’s best suited as the final “endgame” scenario, but as noted it doesn’t need to be that. As a slight spoiler: like many spy stories, the background “big plot” has ties to the old infamous Philby spy ring in Cambridge. The link is so unconventional, however, that mentioning it here isn’t much of a spoiler at all.

All in all, I very much liked this campaign. The flexible structure is very cleverly done, and the individual parts all showcase a somewhat different subgenre of the game (and need very different approaches from the players). In addition, the four parts are only loosely connected, so they should work very nicely as standalone “one-shots” also. Excellent stuff.

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Minireview: Reality Optional, by Gareth Hanrahan

Reality Optional is a new Paranoia novel from Gareth Hanrahan, one of the main developers of the new Paranoia game edition. I’ve enjoyed his work on the game a lot, and I really liked this book too. In fact, it managed to be better than I was expecting, and I was expecting something quite good to begin with.

The story concerns one Jerome-G, a loyal (well, “ish”) employee of the Threat Obfuscation Department, tasked with creating new fake threats (so as to cover up real ones, according to the Computer’s brilliant plan). Things are fine and well (within Alpha Complex limits) until one daycycle when his “fake” threats start becoming real. The really do seem to be pirates (of the “yarrr!” variety) in the transtube tunnels, there really does seem to be a robotic independence movement, etc etc. Not that Jerome-G has too much time to worry about this, since he has apparently raised the ire of a Violet-level executive and his latest assignment (starting now) is reactor shielding duty. It’s a good thing he “accidentally” “found” this neat set of high-tech goggles, which allow him to view and bypass some Alpha Complex security settings. It’s a not-so-good thing that the goggles in question also seem to be raising a lot of interest. The kind of interest that wants to see Jerome-G become reactor shielding and the goggles moved to a more… deserving owner.

It’s a really fun tale, and reads somewhat like an old-style spy thriller (with distinct Paranoia overtones). This time around, there really is a theme of “paranoia”, since Jerome-G needs to figure out who (if anyone) he can trust in a world where everyone has at least three ulterior secret motives. He is also convinced that a secretive uber-conspiracy controls everything in the background… and he may well be right. Gamewise, this book mostly reflects the “Straight” story style (with a dash of inspired craziness here and there) – while the Computer does at times execute citizens on a whim, the main dangers are getting demoted, fined, or otherwise lost in bureaucratic hell.

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Minireview: The Laundry

“Never cross the line of a pentacle or summoning grid. Remember, incomplete pentacles emit tentacles.”

The Laundry is a roleplaying adaptation of Charles Stross’ “The Laundry Files” novels, based on the same core mechanic as Call of Cthulhu (BRP) and written (among others) by Gareth Hanrahan of Paranoia fame. Since the books have been describes as “Cthulhu meets Dilbert, with a dash of Paranoia”, all that is quite apt. I’ll say this up front: it’s among the best, if not the best, book-into-rpg adaptation I’ve ever read.

For people who haven’t read the books: the stories deal with the life and times of one Bob Howard (not his real name), an employee in Her Majesty’s Occult Service, more properly known as “The Laundry”. Operating in the U.K., it tries to keep the country safe from supernatural horrors, while at the same time fighting the more tangible horrors of budget cuts, (literally) nightmarish bureaucracy, clueless supervisors and antiquated equipment. So yes, Dilbert meets Cthulhu. Many of the alien horrors here are quite explicitly from the Cthulhu mythos, though there is a twist: in this world, magic and mathematics are inseparable, and if you do clever simulations with computers you risk summoning something from Dimension X to eat your brain on the side. The general public is blissfully unaware of this, of course, so the Laundry has its hands full trying to quell demonic incursions caused by clueless hackers. Or cultists, can’t forget those.

So, it’s Cthulhu set in a modern-day environment where you’re actually working for a government agency (kinda sorta like Delta Green), but unlike DG this one is very British. It’s also not a rogue agency and actually has a budget… though it’s a very skimpy one. The books are heavy on the humor side, and the game mirrors that. It’s not a joke game, but there is a heavy humor element involved – witness the cover in which a Laundry agent fends off zombie hordes in a cubicle office, while wearing an XKCD t-shirt. Pop culture references are everywhere here, and a lot of the humor depends on being aware of them.

Gamewise, it uses the venerable old BRP engine. Now, this is both good and bad. Good because BRP is definitely in the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it!” department, it’s been the engine of choice for Cthuluoid games for decades now. Conversion of Cthulhu modules into Landry ones is (at least mechanically) easy, and experienced Cthulhu players will feel right at home. On the minus side, the engine is a bit old and creaky in places, and the Sanity mechanic as “mental hit points” is something that is done better by many other systems. The system used here is mainly straight-up BRP, with some expansions to handle the magic-via-math framework of the books.

The book is well organized and is a great read. It’s damn funny in places and presents the material in a way that makes things easy to follow. The artwork is nothing brilliant, but solidly in the “good enough” category. The beginning of the book concentrates on the mechanical details of creating a character, along with the BRP mechanical details. After that we get a huge pile of detail on the Laundry, along with a wonderfully byzantine organization diagram, a list of key NPCs (along with pics), some “ingame” case file notes, a list of antagonists (otherworld horrors, cultists, and other fun stuff). There is also a fantastic section on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is Laundry-speak for the end of the world, the time when the Stars Finally Are Right, so you could actually run a game series set around that. It probably wouldn’t be a very happy game series, but the book does give you the tools with it. Finally, we get three scenarios: “Going Down to Dunwich” which is your basic intro scenario, and not a bad one at that (the PCs get sent to a seashore village for a training session, and things… don’t quite go as planned). The scenario gets plus points for some quite clever red herrings, especially aimed at experienced Cthulhu players. Assuming things here might just get you killed (or worse). The second scenario is “A Footnote”, which is a short romp which can be plugged into the middle of pretty much any Laundry game. It’s ok, but nothing awesome. Lastly we get “The Greys”, in which the PCs investigate an alien which (reportedly) appeared in a local pub and then vanished. It’s the most complex of the three scenarios and also the best; figuring out what the hell is actually going on will need a bit of work, and the final answers aren’t all that happy ones.

As I noted in the beginning, I really liked this book. It captures the feel of the books near-perfectly, and (like the books) is a very good and at times very funny read. The presentation is excellent, and while I could quibble a bit with BRP as the engine, there is no doubt that it works. As a game, being agents of a government agency is a great mechanism for giving a game structure, and gripes about “what is this crappy mission and can’t we just go home instead?” become perfectly valid in-game, also. GMs who are fans of Paranoia also get a great excuse to throw some bizarre paperwork at the players. In triplicate, and to be signed in blood.

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Minireview: Alpha Complex Nights 2 (Paranoia)

Like the first “Alpha Complex Nights” book, Alpha Complex Nights 2 is a scenario collection. Well, “scenario duo”, to be more exact. The 64 page book consists of two scenarios which both share the theme of putting the PC in charge of something – with predictably bad results for everyone involved.

The first scenario is “The Communist Cafeteria Conspiracy”, where the brave (or not) Troubleshooters are put in charge of a huge and expensive cafeteria complex. What could possibly go wrong? The scenario features weird mind control devices, suspicious “French” food and chefs, invasion by the Armed Forces, Infrared revolts, and other normal everyday Alpha Complex events. It’s a fun romp, though it does go pretty far in the “zany” direction at times (the ingredient list needed for a certain recipe is… not “Straight” material). I liked the structure here; the PCs get quite a lot of freedom to choose their actions, but certain events happen at certain times and (naturally) most choices the PCs can make only make their predicament worse. Classic Paranoia, in other words.

The second half of the book consists of “Viva La Revolution!”, where the revolution actually happens. Well, kinda sort of (there is an amusing back story about the how and why of things). The PCs suddenly discover that they are in the middle of the People’s Glorious Revolution, and get the choice of heading the People’s Glorious Firing Squad or being put in the laser sights of said squad. Most PCs will probably choose the “avoid getting shot” option and start deciding the fates of various Enemies of the People. Naturally enough, all decisions made by the PCs will have repercussions later, and the Glorious Revolution doesn’t seem all that stable either. Another good scenario, with classic “screwed no matter what you do” choices to be made by the players… with the extra bonus that not quite all the choices result in doom. Smart or lucky Troubleshooters can navigate this one without running out of clones, even though they are yelling Communist slogans one minute and professing their love for Friend Computer the next.

It’s not a huge book, but both the scenarios presented here are quality ones (assuming you want the “Classic” style of play) and the price is right. Recommended.

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Minireview: Alpha Complex Nights

Alpha Complex Nights is a fairly new book for Paranoia XP. It’s a collection of three new adventures, all written by Gareth Hanrahan. I’d say it’s a very good – with some minor disclaimers.

All three adventures share two elements: they all contain a non-standard twist, and they are all quite complicated. Complicated in that they all actually have a back story, and there’s a lot to keep in mind when running them. That complexity also makes them quite interesting, so it’s a some-good-some-bad feature. The twists add to the interest factor.

The first of the bunch is Spin Control, which features the need for the Troubleshooters to control the “truth”. While always being an important survival skill in good ol’ Alpha Complex, here it becomes a mandate. There are also zombies. Yes, zombies. Lots of them. Of the brain-eating kind. Yes, that’s the twist. Sporks also feature heavily. The whole thing is insanely complex, quite funny, and very good.

Second up is My First Treason, where the Troubleshooters… aren’t. Aren’t Troubleshooters, that is. Instead, players play “junior citizens”, fresh from the creche and straight into school (or what passes for it in Alpha Complex). There’s a lot of Harry Potter spoofing going on and lots of opportunities to stab people in the back, blame others, and try to survive. Situation normal, in other words. While good fun and a nice twist, this is possibly the weakest of the three – though that is mostly due to the high quality of the other two.

Last up, there’s Sweep Of Unhistory, where (due to a fairly unlikely plot gimmick) the Troubleshooters get re-cloned time and time again… each time further in the future. While staying quite “normal” in the beginning, the whole thing degenerates into an insane version of The Time Machine, with lots of jokes and references thrown about in all appropriate directions. Alpha Complex where the Commies won (sorta)? Flying Alpha Complex sky fortress? No computer, just lots of slaves and coconuts? Giant mutant cockroaches? All here. It’s a lovely time travel spoof and great Paranoia adventure, rolled into one. Keeping up player interest through the zillion possible futures may be a challenge, of course.

All that is based on how the things read, of course – they sound like lots of fun, but the proof is in the play, as always.

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