Thursday, December 8, 2011

REVIEW: Darkness Visible

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I'm a huge fan of espionage stories and movies. That's probably why so many of my RPG campaigns, even when they're ostensibly about something else, inevitably turn into ersatz spy-based ones. I simply adore everything about the espionage genre, including the factional infighting that sometimes makes one's own side just as much an impediment to success as one's opposition. So, naturally, when I heard about Darkness Visible, the espionage supplement for the excellent Star Without Number, I was very excited.

Darkness Visible is 96 pages long and available as either a PDF (for $9.99) or a printed softcover book (for $19.99). In terms of its appearance, it's very similar to previous releases for Stars Without Number: a no frills two-column layout consisting of dense text and very limited art. This is an unambiguously hobbyist product, conceived, written, and assembled by one person (Kevin Crawford). It's also an extremely well written and imagined product that I found myself re-reading even after I'd finished it, something that sets it apart from all but the best products I review. Make no mistake, though; Darkness Visible is also a very specialized product, far moreso than, say, Skyward Steel or even Polychrome, both of which are more broadly useful even in campaigns not focused on interstellar navies and cyberpunk, respectively.

The supplement consists of six chapters and a short introduction. The first chapter discusses espionage in the days prior to the cataclysmic Scream that is the foundational event of the Stars Without Number setting. It's mostly focused on an organization called the Perimeter, whose primary purpose was as a first line of defense against rogue A.I.s but whose role eventually expanded over time. The second chapter follows this up by discussing the organization and operation of contemporary espionage agencies descended from the pre-Scream Perimiter. Of the two, the second chapter is much more immediately useful to a referee running an espionage campaign, as the first is largely historical and somewhat canon-heavy. That's not to say the first chapter is devoid of interest, but it mostly deals with events that occurred more than 500 years before campaign present, which tends to limit its obvious utility.

The third chapter provides rules constructing espionage agencies and conspiratorial cabals. These rules are similar to those in the Stars Without Number rulebook for handling factions but aren't identical, which could cause some confusion. On the other hand, I like the fact that Crawford didn't try to shoehorn agencies and cabals into the factional system, preferring instead to give them a system reflective of their peculiarities. Consequently, concepts such as infiltration and connections play a big role, along with a host of "elements," which are like factional assets from the main rulebook but geared toward espionage campaigns. So we get assassins, criminal ties, front businesses, and hidden strings, among others, each of which comes with numerous examples and plot seeds. Cabals get their own elements, which function similarly, but have slightly different focuses, primarily forbidden and dangerous technology. This is the chapter where Darkness Visible really shines by providing not merely a simple system for handling actions by espionage agencies and sinister cabals but also by providing lots of ideas on how to use the system to inspire adventures.

Chapter four focuses on three types of cults and cabals -- those devoted to eugenics, those devoted to "unbraked" A.I.s, and those devoted to weapons of mass destruction. In each case, there's a brief overview of these groups, their organizations, and their goals, followed by rules and sample NPCs appropriate to them. There are also 36 new tags to use with the world generation system in the Stars Without Number rulebook, each of which offers plenty of examples and suggestions for their use. Chapter five is referee-oriented and is about creating espionage adventures. In addition to the usual abstract talk about adventure design we see so often in RPG books, we get six pages of random tables to aid the referee in his task. For my money, these few pages are worth a lot more than what precedes them, as they're eminently usable and quickly aid the referee in creating the outline of a scenario. Chapter six is a short one, offering new backgrounds and equipment for espionage campaigns.

Darkness Visible is a compelling, tightly focused supplement for Stars Without Number -- perhaps too tightly focused for some, though, for me, it was a delight to read. If you're planning to include lots of espionage agencies or maltech cults in your campaign in any capacity, it's probably worth picking up. If you're not, it might still be worth getting but, as I noted earlier, I don't think it's as generally useful as earlier supplements. On the other hand, Crawford does a great job of making his subject matter compelling, so much so that I found myself taking a far greater interest in, for example, cabals and cults than I thought I might. As with all previous Stars Without Number products, the rules material of Darkness Visible is simple, unobtrusive, and quite amenable to modification. All in all, it's a nice little package that demonstrates once more why Stars Without Number is one the most interesting RPGs, old school or otherwise, to be released in the last few years.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You're playing Stars Without Number or any other SF RPG where espionage and conspiracies play an important role.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in extra detail regarding espionage agencies or conspiratorial cabals.

1 comment:

  1. I've got most of Kevin Crawford's SWN supplements (all except Polychrome,) and I am very impressed. His writing is great and he always seems to think a bit above and beyond most game designers. And so much of what he presents is system neutral - you can use it anywhere - lots of it even bleeds over into fantasy.

    I'm using bits from Darkness Visible in my own campaign - though I don't think the players are aware. Come to think of it, I don't think they are even aware they are in an espionage-based campaign. They are too busy sneaking into places and blowing stuff up. :)

    - Ark