Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Laundry Files: Agent's Handbook

This is a followup to my review of The Laundry RPG.

The Laundry Files: Agent's Handbook is a sort of player's guide to The Laundry. It adds a ton of options and bells and whistles to player characters in The Laundryverse and, by extension, Laundry games overall. Like the core rulebook, it's well-written and put together and chock full of good information.

Pretty much every base is covered by the additions: new character professions, training courses, additional information on how to navigate the Laundry bureaucracy, expanded weapon and equipment lists, and guidelines for playing atypical Laundry characters ranging from non-humans to clueless civilians, and character templates. The equipment lists I kind of glazed over (as I typically do) - they appear complete, and have a couple of cool little widgets, a bunch of firearms that should satisfy gun-bunnies, but their inclusion or lack thereof isn't a selling point for me.

The biggest appeal for me in this book is the first chapter: Tradecraft. This is something that I was chomping at the bit for when I finished the main rulebook. This is really, really good stuff that covers everything from how to keep an identity, gather information, recruit informants and agents, various ways of signalling and passing messages (with a great reason why the Laundry sticks to older methods such as dead drops), and field operations such as tailing, evasion, surveillance, etc. The section incorporates the occult elements and tactics The Laundry employs seamless with the time-honored traditions of spycraft.

My second favorite chapter is Black Budget, Red Tape which adds some more detail to navigating the bureaucracy surrounding The Laundry. There are even Bureaucracy Random Encounters to drop on unsuspecting players. They are intended to make things a little livelier (especially when failing the check on one of them requires that you return to the office to fix it).

The new training courses hit the mark with the kind of corporate training that I've seen (such as "Achieving More With Less", "Aspiring to Senior Civil Service" and "Managing Changelings") plus military training courses and (of course) occult courses such as "Eschatological Countermeasures" and "Occulinux Installation and Use." There is also a small selection of Special Instructor Courses, dealing with specific oaths, rites, and books - these are courses you can sign up for (they're assigned) and the cost doesn't come out of your departmental budget. They of course cost SAN instead.

The chapter on Weird Characters is one of the ones least likely by me to get any use, but it is nice to have a "template" to put over an existing character if you need to turn them into a Gorgon or a Residual Human Resource (aka zombie, but HR doesn't want us to use that term anymore - it's insensitive). Parallel Dimensional Refugee characters are interesting - basically they're people who have slipped through from a similar dimension. Fringe meets the Laundry makes Walter Bishop's form of crazy a lot more ominous.

Likewise, Outside the Laundry has some pointers for running non-Laundry campaigns, such as civilian paranormal investigators, independent sorcerers, or just plain cultists. Unfortunately, a lot of it can be distilled down to 1) avoiding the Laundry because if they catch up to you, it's pretty much over or 2) coming up with contrived reasons the Laundry is looking the other way. The options seem somewhat unsatisfying to me (at least at the moment), and I know that I'd rather just play a straight Laundry game. There are also more details for playing agents agents from other OCCINTEL agencies.

Join the Black Chamber! Kill, and become host to, unspeakable horror!
The final chapter gives a brief summary of The Laundry during different eras. An Eighties campaign would probably be pretty cool - while computing power wasn't anything near what it is today, but they were still potentially dangerous and we didn't have ubiquitous cell phones, or email, the Web, etc. In a way, it had the beginnings of the truly dangerous stuff without a lot of the technology to fight it.

The book wraps up with print-outs of various forms (such as the Incident Report Form  - SBB1C, Sorcery Licence Application, and Reality Excursion Assessment - SSB2) plus a copy of the Official Secrets Act of 1916 and a blank warrant card. The forms aren't intended to be something players are forced to always fill out, at least not without a good reason (having your line manager come and dump a stack of forms on your desk is probably the opening salvo in a round of bureaucratic maneuvering).

I don't typically buy every supplement for game lines unless I really like them, and usually there are a couple that I think are pretty much essential. Vimary Sourcebook for Tribe 8 is one of them, as was Scavenger Sons for Exalted. I tend to be partial to gazetteer-style books over "Look, new whiz-bangs!" books. I'd place the Agent's Handbook somewhere midway between Absolutely Essential and Nice To Have. There's a lot of good information, and the book is well worth the money. But the mileage you get out of it is is going to vary - you could run an Laundry campaign and not use 50% of the book. But the 50% that you do use is going to serve you well.