The Zalozhniy Quartet for Night’s Black Agents sends the Agents on a desperate search for… wait. Spoiler warning. Don’t read this article if you’re likely to play in a ZQ game anytime soon. It’s a desperate search for, ah, something fuzzy and friendly and totally does not involve unkillable time-locked zombie monsters.

Now that we’ve cleared the room of non-Directors without clearance, let’s get into it. The Quartet involves a search for two mysterious substances, the nigredo (vampiric essence) and the albedo (a control substance of some sort). Combined, these create the rubedo, a marvellous compound sought by the vampires – and that, incidentally, gives control over the House of Saud and Saudi Arabia. (I note in passing that not only have world events overwritten the opening sequence of The Zalozhniy Sanction, set in Crimea, but current events in Riyadh may soon make the description in Treason in the Blood obsolete…)

If all goes according to plan, the Agents pick up the Albedo in The Boxmen and find the nigredo in Treason in the Blood.

The terms albedo, nigredo and rubedo are borrowed from alchemy. They’re three of the steps towards the Great Work to make the philosopher’s stone and achieve immortality, which makes them obviously pertinent to vampiric weirdness. You start with nigredo, with putrefaction and death (or, if you’re going with a Jungian know-thyself interpretation, the dark night of the soul). You’re wash it clean with (or in) the albedo (the Whiteness, Cleansing). You transmute it through citrinitas, the Yellow, the solar light, the dawn. Finally, you achieve the rubedo, the Red, perfection and victory and immortality (and access to Saudi oil reserves.)

So, there’s a whole alchemical step in the Magnum Opus right there – citrinas – that’s missing in the Zalozhniy Quartet. If that offends your sense of alchemical symmetry, here are some options for adding it in:

  • The citrinas is the human element in the vampire. CITRINE was St. John Philby’s codename for King Ibn Saud; the Conspiracy still use the Citrine codename to refer to the Saudi royal family (“we can draw down funds from the citrines”)
  • Citrinas is the essence of solar heroism – it’s vampire slaying. To create the rubedo, you need the blood of a hero. The Conspiracy needs to capture one of the Agents alive to complete their plan.
  • The citrinas refers to the ritual needed to combine the albedo and The Agents can obtain it from the Russian defector Arkady Shevlenko, or from Kim Philby’s safety deposit box, or St. John’s grave, or Dorjiev’s notes. Alternatively, the citrinas might be a potion that awakens the imbiber’s consciousness, enabling them to combine the albedo and nigredo safely. This also implies that the Conspiracy may end up needing to snatch one of the Agents.
  • The citrinas refers to a magical lens (maybe one of the glass fulminates retrieved from the desert, suitably polished) that transmutes the solar magic of daylight into the alchemical heat needed to achieve the rubedo. The Kingdom Centre in Riyadh is, of course, made using windows of citrinas; the Agents can delay the ritual by blowing up the Conspiracy’s lenses, or hike into the desert to find their own lenses.
  • Citrinas, the moment of self-realisation after death and cleansing, refers to the death-moment of a zalozhniy. Dr. Dorjiev wears citrine stones to anchor his life to that death-moment, as per p. 9 – if the Agents destroy or remove those stones, he’ll have to create a new zalozhniy post-haste to hide his death away again. (Kim Philby also created a citrinas token to sustain him through the Great Work, which is why he was so damned hard to kill – his citrine-stone ensured he survived the shell explosion in December 1937 in Spain, when he emerged unharmed from a blast that killed everyone else in the car he was travelling in. The citrine may be stored in his deposit box in the Kornersbank, or in some KGB storeroom in Moscow.)

For lots more alchemical fun, check out GUMSHOE Zoom: Alchemy

wrist comIn The Zalozhniy Quartet, there’s a scene (not really a spoiler) where the PCs are outmatched and are ‘supposed’ to flee, leading into a tense chase. Expecting player characters to take a particular action is always hazardous design – you can set up a situation where there’s only one valid route for the PCs to follow, and they’ll still stall and try a hundred alternate approaches before doing the obvious. In this case, waiting for the players to decide the situation was untenable and choose to retreat wasn’t an option – the scene involves a direct confrontation with… things they’re not equipped to deal with.

In my initial draft, I suggested a bunch of ways for the Director to make it clear to the PCs that running away was their best – indeed, only – option. Sense Trouble rolls. Having the bad guys beat up the PCs with ease. Having the NPCs soldiers accompanying the mission heroically sacrifice themselves, giving the PCs a chance to escape.

The solution, as pointed out by Robin, was to make the overwhelming odds a Core Clue, obtained with Military Science. The player character – a veteran of a hundred black operations and brush wars – instantly sizes up the situation, and realizes that hanging around is suicide. They’ve got to run. Making it a core clue changes the dynamic from “the GM forces the PCs to act” to “the PCs, by dint of their superior skills and experience, fight their way out of a lethal ambush and escape to safety”.

What makes this especially interesting, from a scenario design point of view, is that Military Science isn’t often used passively. It’s the sort of skill that a player brings up when they’re spying on a furtive meeting between two mercenaries, or when they’re trying to bluff their way onto a military base. Writing a scene that takes a skill normally used as an active, ‘I ferret out the clues thusly’ and just handing a clue to the players can produce interesting results.

Esoterrorists – Document Analysis: While paying for take-out at a nearby diner, you spot a cheque in the drawer of the cash register. The handwriting on the check matches that of the author of the Esoterror manifesto you’re in town to find. The check was right on top of the drawer – the target might still be right here in the restaurant.

Recalled Information & Flashbacks

Revealing facts to players as Core Clues (or as a benefit for spending points) is the core of GUMSHOE. A Mutant City Blues player uses Ballistics, and you describe how they work out that the killer must have been standing on the third floor balcony of the building across the street. Searching CCTV camera footage with Data Retrieval gets them a photo of the gunman, and running that through a police database with Research gets them a name.

Or, in Trail of Cthulhu, they use Occult, and learn that the owl sigil they found is associated with the Minervan League, and then use Credit Rating to get an invitation to a League-sponsored lecture.

You can go further than that. A Ballistics clue could equally point the characters towards a roleplaying scene.

“At that range, with the weather that night, it would have been a hell of a shot. You know one guy who could have pulled it off – an old army buddy of yours, an ex-sniper who’s now a shooting instructor. He probably knows all the good marksmen in this region. Maybe he knows the shooter; it’s definitely worth talking to him”

Or.

You’ve seen this symbol before. You remember reading a book in the restricted stacks of the Orne Library, back at good old Miskatonic. The owl sigil is used by a sect called the Minervan league. In fact, you recall that that particular book was donated to the library collection after the death of its previous owner. Thinking about it, he lived near here. Maybe his family know more.”

More ambitiously, you can embed scenes inside other scenes, by means of a flashback. Keep flashbacks short, and be prepared to improvise in response to player actions in the ‘past’.

Occult: “You recognise that symbol – it’s the sign of the Minervan League. You know that because in your youth, you were acquainted with a member of the league. You even applied for membership, but weren’t accepted – did an existing member blackball you, or did you back out at the last minute?

Anyway, you remember your friend hinting about the league’s secret purpose. He started to say something about a Great Work… then he fell silent, as if suddenly frightened. What did you do?”  

NPCs as Clues

A clue – especially an Interpersonal one – can be incarnated in the form of an NPC from the PCs’ past. Instead of, say, getting information from the waitress at the bar through Flirting, maybe the waitress is an ex-girlfriend of the Flirting player character. She’ll tell you what she overheard – but only if you apologise for what happened the last time she saw you.

If a PC has a high Intimidate, then presumably they’ve intimidated people in the past. So, when the PCs are combing the dark streets of the city, ask who’s got the highest Intimidate – the PC with the second highest rating is the one who gets jumped by the vengeful goons. (Of course they don’t go after the highest rating – that guy’s scary). Beating up the goons yields the next Core Clue.

A Core Clue points the way to another scene. It doesn’t have to be evidence interpreted by the PCs. Anything that opens up a new avenue of investigation works. Mix up the way you present core clues whenever you feel your game is getting repetitive!

A review of The Zalozhniy Quartet by featured reviewer Alexander O on DriveThruRPG. Five out of Five.

Once you’ve settled in to your regularly Night’s Black Agents sessions, I highly recommend The Zalozhniy Quartet.

A review from veteran Megan Robertson for the The Zalozhniy Quartet.

The whole campaign captures the feel inherent in the core rulebook excellently with plenty of scope for the characters to grow, develop, struggle as the experienced mercenary spies that they are supposed to be, complete with options presented based on the mode of game you have chosen to run.