Review: Darkness Visible

Posted: 2 November 2011 in Reviews

Excitement mounted in the Station Hub as the cargo shuttle from RPGNow delivered the latest component of Stars Without Number. This is Darkness Visible, the sourcebook for espionage campaigns.

Since I started playing Traveller in the late 1970s, my SF campaigns have always had an espionage component; the default situation for my PCs in such games is to be the “private contractors” that agencies turn to when they cannot, or don’t want to, deploy their own agents. This is probably due to overexposure to the works of Adam Hall, Len Deighton and Poul Anderson’s Flandry stories as a youth.

So, I was immensely interested in what Mr Crawford makes of this subgenre. And here it is; 97 pages of spy stuff, with his usual atmospheric chapter headings…


This is a capsule introduction to the book and its contents.

HOLD THE LINE (6 pages)

In similar vein to Skyward Steel’s equivalent chapter on the Navy, this traces the purpose and history of the Perimeter Agency, the foremost covert agency of the Terran Mandate; its fracturing into shards by the Scream; and the evolution of local networks, related and unrelated, since that time.

In earlier SWN books we have seen tantalising hints of the first rogue AI, Draco, and its rebellion against the Mandate. More is revealed, but chiefly in explaining the need to create the quasi-religious Perimeter Agency as a hedge against any recurrence of this disaster. Power corrupts, and over centuries some Agency outposts strayed from the true path; then the Scream came, and they were on their own. Those that still survive are intent on returning to star travel for one reason or another.

Meanwhile, those organisations previously opposed to the Mandate have used their skills to infiltrate elsewhere, and the relative cheapness of espionage and sabotage compared to naval and marine assaults mean that the majority of wars fought in the fading of the Silence are covert ones.


This section explains how a spy organisation works in the setting, whatever its size and origin. Here we find information on surviving Perimeter Agencies, planetary networks operated by minor governments, and the smaller organisations set up by malcontents.

It discusses the ways in which one might become an agent, and the differences between the rank-and-file desk-bound agent and the elite operatives represented by the PCs.

A generic organisational template for an agency is provided, consisting of a director overseeing four bureaux: Internal Security, Foreign Intelligence, Research, and Support. While the section does mention the parallel organisations common in this arena, it immediately struck me that in the contemporary real world, the Internal Security and Foreign Intelligence bureaux are often different agencies; the FBI and CIA, or MI5 and MI6, for example.

The Perimeter Agency had a different structure, with a director controlling three bureaux, each devoted to a different kind of maltech threat, Support provided by family members of the agents, and Research held in the Mandate’s core worlds. The tales of how agencies survived the Scream and the Silence brought to mind Asimov’s Foundation novels, or more conventional conspiracy stories like Seven Days of the Condor. It seems entirely in keeping with the genre that some agencies are forced into completely useless tasks purely to meet the requirements of the expert systems controlling their equipment; Len Deighton would have been right at home there.


This is the largest single chapter, and provides tools for building the agencies, cabals and other organisations necessary for an espionage campaign. These are much like the factions of the core rulebook, but are focussed on direct employment of the PCs rather than generating background for a sandbox, and thus are a step away from a “pure” sandbox towards scripted adventures. The GM might want to use agencies instead of factions, rather than as well as, to reduce effort and complexity.

Like a faction, an agency has attributes, but these are determined by looking at its tags or elements, each of which affects the values of the seven attributes of Connection, Infiltration, Mobility, Muscle, Resources, Security and Tech, which range from 0-15. In like vein, there are agency turns as well as, or instead of, faction turns. While the GM can run all the agencies himself, the book assumes that the PCs help to create their employing agency, and set policy for it at the end of each session, taking on the role of one of the bureau chiefs or the director. PC agencies can do more in any given agency turn than NPC ones, and they always go first, too; but to counteract this, their more sinister opponents have more elements, and thus probably better attribute levels.

There is a 4-page handout provided for the players, giving the basics of how an agency turn works and what the elements look like.

During an agency turn, each agency can attempt to attack a rival agency’s elements, block an incoming attack, build or improve an element, discern a rival’s plans, and so forth. The attribute ratings of the two agencies involved determine the chances of success. Each action the PCs’ agency undertakes is potentially an adventure to run, assuming that the players and GM agree; in this case it is fleshed out using the Tradecraft section and run as a scenario, with success or failure depending on the outcome; otherwise, it is resolved by the GM’s die rolls.

Elements can be compromised by sabotage or dissent, in which case their ratings are reduced; adding both complexity and realism, an agency might not know whether an element is compromised until they try to use it. There are 21 common elements – armouries, military backing and many more – each of which is described, with the different effects of that element at each of three levels, examples of each, and 10 plot seeds for each one. There are also 7 uncommon elements, only used by maltech organisations, and not really suitable for the PCs’ agency; these lack plot seeds, largely because they are in a sense plot seeds themselves.

THOU SHALT NOT (26 pages)

This is another large chapter, and details the threats the Perimeter Agency was founded to contain; the various forms of maltech. Unfortunately, there is always somebody who thinks they are smart enough to use these in a controlled manner, or simply doesn’t care about the outcome.

The Three Forbidden Things which the Perimeter Agency had a remit to stamp out are genetically engineered human slaves, unbraked Artificial Intelligences, and weapons of planetary destruction. Each of these is discussed in turn, covering its history during and since the Mandate, who uses it currently and why, under what circumstances surviving Perimeter Agencies would consider it illicit technology, how the GM should set up suitable cults or other organisations in his campaign, and a selection of stock NPCs and cult capabilities.

Comparison to other games or stories comes easily. Eugenics cults could be used to emulate 2300AD’s Provolution, or W40K Chaos cults; godmind cults recall the Butlerian Jihad from Dune, or Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep, or the Virus from later editions of Traveller; doomsday cults could cover pretty much any pulp villain, James Bond opponent or terrorist organisation. If any of those makes you think “Hmm, there’s a campaign there,” this chapter gives you the tools to build your PCs’ enemies.

The chapter closes with a selection of 36 thematic tags with which to personalise your cult, ranging from Alien Influence to Lost Weapon to Totemic Beast (ooh, I can see Schrodinger making a comeback now). As with world tags in the core rules, each has a selection of friends, enemies, complications, things and places to hang scenarios from.

TRADECRAFT (14 pages)

After the background information and setup tools, we now come to the core of the ongoing game: Adventures. This section provides advice on running an espionage campaign, and generating adventures of intrigue and conspiracy.

Espionage missions are less of a sandbox and more structured than the typical SWN game, at least at the individual PC level; the troupe of players as a whole has sandbox-style freedom, but at the level of the agency which they jointly control. The players jointly agree what mission the PCs will be tasked with, and then the GM fleshes out the target, the antagonist and his goal, and the deadly schemes which will stand between the PCs and success – the PCs should expect to encounter about three individual schemes which weave together to achieve the antagonist’s objective, and demolish them in detail. In each scheme, the PCs must overcome obstacles to obtain leads or clues. Once they have a critical number of these, they move to the climactic scene in which they face off against the major villain. (Incidentally, I could see this working well with THW’s Larger Than Life, which has a similar mechanic.)

Kevin Crawford’s trademark tables appear late in the chapter, allowing the GM to generate randomly the schemes, methods and NPCs for each of six different types of missions. The tables are followed by a worked example. The length of the example makes me think that a GM would need to put a bit more preparation work into one of these than a standard SWN scenario.


Finally, there are some new backgrounds, training packages, and items of equipment suitable for spies. Darkness Visible recommends that each PC has a roster of at least two agents, so that another can be brought in at short notice if the primary is incapacitated somehow. At the end of each adventure, the active PC gets appropriate experience, and one other PC in the player’s roster gets the same amount, representing his work on off-screen missions. Every player has another PC, namely one of the faceless directors who sets policy and creates missions – this is the role he plays when choosing the agency’s actions in the next agency turn.

The book ends with an index.


I can see this sourcebook being useful in a wide range of SF espionage campaigns, from SWN itself to Traveller of any flavour and into Dark Heresy country.

I’m debating whether to create a new campaign around this, or retrofit it into an existing one, but either way, I expect this one will see active use in my games pretty soon.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Disclaimer: My copy was provided to my for review purposes.


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