If you don't want even the least hint of a spoiler for that campaign, stop reading now.
As a Director when you purchase gaming supplements you know you will have to make some adjustments. They might be small or large. You might be looking for something strictly off-the-shelf, with as few user tweaks as possible. You might be the sort who enjoys playing with someone else's toys and bending them to your desired configuration, like a miniatures enthusiast who can't bear to put the paints away until it looks exactly as you imagined. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum some adjustment is inevitable to make the game fit on your table. No published supplement ever written is so perfect as to work for every possible group configuration every time. That means you need to understand vampire design. Or, in a different setting like Dungeons and Dragons or Mutant City Blues, adversary design.
Vampire design is absolutely key to any discussion about Night's Black Agents, and not for the obvious reason. Design is critical because it affects the overall aesthetic of the game, and that aesthetic has to bleed through into every scenario you play. Tone has to be consistent. That means you have to decide pretty much from the outset what your vampires are, because that will determine how they affect tone and therefore plot.
What's at ZQ's core? What are these vampires about?
In ZQ, without going into major spoilers, time is the core concept. Therefore as Director time is what you're going to be playing with. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about Satanic, Mutant, Alien or Supernatural entities. The key factor is time. These creatures play with time; they exist in between the ticking of the clock.
So every scenario, every moment within the game ought to be reinforcing this core concept. Think of it like a murder mystery. If Poirot is investigating a killing at the vicarage, he is always investigating that murder. There is never a point in the story when he is not investigating that murder. The narrative behaves as though he is obsessed with murder from the discovery of the body to the denouement. Eating breakfast? Going to the shops? Watching a film, reading a book? Never; it's all murder, all the time.
For you in ZQ, it's time all the time. As Director you need to emphasize this. It doesn't need to be some massive time-blorp. It can be something as simple as 'you're running late. 'She's always early, this isn't like her.' 'Gosh, is that the time? It's later than you think.' 'That clock's running slow.' You could begin every session by saying something like 'it's 8.36 am on Monday the 3rd,' and end each session with 'it's 11.58 pm on Weds the 5th.' That steady drip of time reinforces the tone, and puts the players in the mood for those moments when you really fork them with the naughty spoon.
I reference the Doctor Who episode Blink above because it's funny, but also because it reinforces the dilemma. Here's a brilliant example of a writer playing with the idea of time, using the simplest technology available: someone's video recording in 1969, played back in the present day. If your vampire plays with time then every chance you get you go wibbley-wobbley, just as freaky as you can.
Stephen King's The Langoliers does this very well - the miniseries not so much, but you can't have everything.
King doesn't start screaming from page 1 'time! Time, you bastards! Tiiiiiimmmmeee!' However much he may have been tempted. No, he starts with a dilemma: most of the people on board the plane have vanished, leaving only a few random artifacts behind. King progresses: why does the air feel different? The food stale? The matches somehow less inflammable? Why is the world so used-up? Then, and only then, when the situation has been established and the stakes clear, do the Langoliers appear on-stage in all their glory.
So in ZQ, what does this mean?
It means you can play with the scenery, that's what. It means 2014, 1970, 1940 and 1893 all occupy the same space at the same moment. It means Robespierre is giving a speech to the Commune, being executed, being born and is long dead all at once. It means it is always teatime.
'What a funny watch!' Alice remarked. 'It tells the month and not the time of day!'
Look around you. Right now. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Chances are the room you currently occupy - the physical building - predates you. Perhaps by decades, perhaps by centuries. Even if it was built in your lifetime unless it is very, very new it has had an existence in space and time that is independent of your own. There was a point when the wall wasn't there, it was over there. Or perhaps that door didn't exist before. The paint changed, the wallpaper was stripped away or applied.
Moreover it will probably outlast you. For years. Perhaps centuries.
Imagine if you could see all those moments at once. How permanent would the world feel to you then, when even the chair you sit in doesdoesnotdoesdoesnot like a cat in a box?
Now you've had that existential crisis, let's discuss the other issue you're likely to have with a published campaign. You need to be able to identify the parts that will not work for you, and to cut them. Don't be tempted to make it work. You'll only hurt yourself and your game. Just be able to see the problem for what it is, and get rid of it. If your heart isn't in it, the players will sense that. They're tricksy beggars. This can only damage the atmosphere, and thus the game.
Remember, the whole point is to provide an experience at the table which everyone enjoys. It's not to play the scenario exactly as written. Nobody ever does that. The Director might skip a scene, the players might not engage with the plot in exactly the way the writer intends. That's perfectly fine. The idea is to have fun. So long as you're doing that, everything else is optional.
Since this bit does involve spoilers, in ZQ:
Each zalozhniy has a mortal wound that would have killed them if it were not for supernatural intervention. If they suffer this wound a second time, they are killed outright. For example, a zalozhniy who is “supposed” to die from a stab wound is destroyed if stabbed in the right place; a zalozhniy who was originally destined to die in a burning house can only be destroyed by incineration. Discovering a zalozhniy’s true death requires investigation, but if the agents can deliver the right type of attack (often with a Called Shot), the creature is instantly destroyed
When I first read that, I thought it was brilliant. Creepy. Totally in keeping with the aesthetic. Then I gave it some thought, and asked myself how I was going to communicate that bit of lore to the players. Then I asked myself how the players were supposed to use this information.
GUMSHOE is ultimately about piecing together clues to unravel plot and resolve story. Say this is a murder mystery: in the room with the cooling corpse there is always something that indicates the identity of the killer. It might be blood spatter and forensics, or a written note clutched in the corpse's hand. There's always something. That means as Director you need to be able to look at any given situation and, without effort, think of a couple of clues that lead to information. The players then use this information to resolve the scenario's dilemma. You never want to hide information, or present information that the players cannot use. Note I say cannot. If the players do not use information, that's their own problem.
Problem: What about someone whose chosen death no longer exists in the modern world? If someone was supposed to be trampled to death by European bison, will cows do? If so, how do you manage that without playing the Benny Hill soundtrack in the background?
Problem: What about a heart condition? Drowning? Electric shock? Extreme allergic reaction? There's a lot of ways to die. What counts as dying before your time? Hell, what's 'your time'? Is it just old age or is there something more to it?
Problem: How do you investigate someone's true death? It's not as if you can pull an autopsy report off the official file. There can be no autopsy; there was never a body to cut up. If you know that Mack the spec ops veteran was last seen when an IED took out his vehicle, fine. Except that doesn't tell you whether he died of explosive damage or heart failure or something else altogether. You'd have to get close enough to the target for Medicine or Notice to work, and if you're that close then the vampire probably has its fangs in you already.
So I began to wonder whether or not this mechanic was worth keeping. It's cool and I like the idea, but I'm already finding ways to bork it. If I can do that then the players will definitely do the same. Or, worse, they'll never find out about this mechanic and so never use it.
I'm not saying the idea's unworkable. I'm saying I can't make it work for me. So I can either tinker with it until it does work - which, as I mention above, is a really bad idea - or I can cut it. If I cut it I have to replace it with something that does the same job, but which I can make better use of.
So what does this mechanic do? Is it vital? Is there another way to get the same result?
It provides an instakill mechanic. Vampires can be killed by other means, so it's not vital. I can think of other ways to get the same result.
My fix: every vampire has a time they're supposed to die, but didn't. If Mack the spec ops veteran was supposed to bleed out at 1.45 pm and 43 seconds, then that's when he's most vulnerable. If someone delivers a killing blow at that split second (called shot), the vampire dies outright. The vampires know the moment of their own death and are incredibly paranoid about it, making sure they're in a safe place at the appropriate time. At that very split second each day the distortion field expands in the same way it does when a zalozhniy feeds. So if the players pay attention to those moments when the vampire seeks a safe place and their distortion field blorps, they can work out the best moment to attack.
Enjoy! Next week, something different.