Spy RPGs – keep them intriguing!
Spy-related or espionage games are great fun, whether you’re a player or GM. It’s quite rewarding creating elaborate schemes and plots for such games. If you’re going to do a spy RPG right as a GM, then you will probably need to do some preparation to an extent.
When you’re running a spy RPG, it’s a good idea to try and get as much info as you can from your players about their characters – who their contacts are, what their assets and drawbacks are, etc. Also, its often a good idea to find out more about PC family members and any secrets, whether its within the game rules or not. Most modern RPGs have some form of asset or drawback system that should then be fleshed out by the player ASAP. PCs are not largely machines (at least not in most spy RPGs): they may have home lives and their own dirty little secrets (see BBC TV’s Spooks for just how this can work!). These can later be used as possible story hooks – or as leverage by the bad guys.
It’s best to try and create character-driven games rather than shoe-horning PCs in to a specific scenario when it come to spy RPGs. For example, a Shadowrun game I played in involved a covert operation upon an oil rig. If there’d been a Decker or Rigger in the party they would have likely spent most of their time twiddling their thumbs – but the group of us worked well as a team because the adventure played to our strengths as a result.
You can also get considerable fun out of having some PCs being more than they appear – secret powers such as latent para-psychics in Cthulhutech, telepaths in spy RPGs like the Necroscope RPG (or my own eBranch game). When you add the fact that spy RPGs usually foster a certain sense of paranoia in players, you can also have fun when the implication is that the PCs all have their own agendas!
The Opposition (NPCs)
It is very easy to create a monolithic organisation – e.g. the Men in Black, Cobra, HYDRA, the Rapine Storm – but all need some kind of quirk that makes them different. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as making their viewpoints and goals different in such a way that they oppose those of the characters’ own – from financial gain and world domination (e.g. HYDRA and SPECTRE), to the complete destruction of the characters’ way of life e.g. the Rapine Storm in Cthulhutech, the Borg of the Star Trek universe.
Obviously these organisations are composed of individuals – even the Borg have their Queen(s) – but it is sometimes worth coming up with something that symbolises the organisation: a symbol, uniform or method; something that will instantly “click” with your players. Significant NPCs of these organisations should also be distinct in some way from the others, with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, to set them apart from the rank and file.
There’s also the “Other guys”. Every organisation has them: the IT support staff, the accountants, science techs. not everyone has to be James Bond: where would he be without Q and his team? If you watch programs like CSI, most of their cases involve a lot of support staff – video techs, lab techs, etc. A Hacker or Decker can be a dangerous opponent when they are powerful enough to compromise your security: see films like Enemy of the State or the Bourne Identity. A few pieces of info changed and suddenly your spies are burned (like TV’s Burn Notice – which is recommended for anyone running a spy game).
Here’s a few other things to bear in mind (and that I’ve found useful) for spy-related games.
Surveillance & Investigation.
In the real world, surveillance is long, arduous and gruellingly boring. Fortunately, you can compress time in RPGs, but you should feel free to embellish what the PCs see or do. You never know, they may miss the delivery, ransom drop, or hit, because one of them is too busy playing with the sniper scope or arguing with the other PCs: you don’t need to play out the surveillance day by day. Also, investigations by PCs can take far less time than in RPGs when you compress it. Bear in mind that intelligence-gathering, monitoring, forensics, or lab tests take far longer if the PCs don’t do it themselves – with the relevant skill rolls and successor failures relying on their expertise. If they decide to use a third party, it may take longer – but you can control the information that the PCs get as a result.
Spy games are all about bluff, deceit, obfuscation, and double-crosses. At the core of a spy game is information: who has it, the control of it, and the quality of it. A list of names can prove priceless in the right hands. The identity of a traitor or other individual, like Karla in Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, could comprise a number of adventure sessions. A GM could even point it towards the players themselves, one of whom is the Mole.
Location, location, location
As a GM it falls to you to try and make your players aware of their surroundings and describe the setting. The internet is your friend in this case. Want to run a game in Malta? Use Google Earth/Maps and get some idea of the street level appearance, at least. Wikipedia will give you some idea of the culture and customs as well, but it’s often a good idea to use locations that you yourself have visited – it is much easier to describe places from memory!
Computers, McGuffins, cybernetic implants, guns, players love ‘em. Most games have some form of gear supplement that players will go through and drool over. They’ll spend forever going through them: as GM, it doesn’t really help the game if the players are looting bodies for their cybernetic parts every five minutes, or loading up with stolen assault rifles. It is sometimes worth creating a standard field kit that the PCs are given. If the game allows your players to requisition equipment, it bears thinking about how portable it is or how reasonable the request is – you don’t necessarily take a tactical nuke on a diplomatic assignment! In fact, you can actually make an adventure out of acquiring the gear – such as stealing the equipment or smuggling it across the border.
Psychic powers and mind-spies
Any game that involves PCs with psychic powers is going to take a bit of work on your part as GM. Telepaths can pull secrets from people’s minds – the location of the villain’s secret lair? The identity of the murderer? That’s easy for a telepath to discover. It can play hell with your plot, but there’s ways to work around it: the bad guys have mental shields, telepaths are not allowed to scan unwilling subjects (it is inadmissible in court etc.), line of sight is needed for their power to work, etc.
Despite the difficulties in plotting games around psychic powers, mind-spies and telepaths make for interesting games (as in Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series). Telepaths are the ultimate espionage tool – they can look like anyone, don’t require equipment, and can rarely be detected. Opponents may have their own psychics blocking out any mind-readers, and of course there are creatures that have their own mental powers (again, to use Necroscope as an example, the Wamphyri have their mindsmog).
Building the Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG pt.1 – Initial Thoughts
Or at least having a bash at it. There comes a point where every GM/DM would like to see their game (or setting) in print. So here’s the thing: I’ve talked before about creating an RPG for the Mandragora setting before so I’m actually going to try and do it. I’ve never published my own RPG, and I guess the two Mandragora Play-By-Mail games I did don’t really count, although the game manuals were very much part of the learning curve for me. The New World Explorers Guide for ORC also helped. I’m going to give it a try, as much of the system itself is already in place although I’ll need to fine-tune things: this isn’t hubris, I’m just curious to see how I get on.
Right. Lets get this party started!
First, the system. Now I could go for an open gaming license such as FUDGE, FATE or similar, but I’ve decided to use my own system and build upon other game mechanics I’ve used in the past. Why? Although the Mandragora have their basis in (A)D&D, I’m going to try and create the system as an experiment – I’m going to use the Mandragora as the focus for the game. While OGL games are pretty common its quite likely that I could create a decent system and maybe even release it as its own OGL RPG. I’m going to borrow freely from other games as its my personal belief that most RPGs borrow freely from each other – even Shadowrun and Deathwatch have aspects of D&D, although you may need to look hard.
I’ve decided to make the system primarily d6-based, as it doesn’t require any specialised dice – although I’m tempted to create some custom dice for the game later on! I’ll touch on that later - not in this article though. I’d like to leave D20 out in its entirety.
As you see I’ve not touched upon stuff like commissioning artwork, layout, and editing or cartography yet: I’m literally building the rules and RPG from the ground up! I’m currently calling it the MANDRAGORA RPG, but I’m torn between calling it that or the MANDRAKE system.
Now here’s my first thoughts on PLAYER CHARACTERS (PCs).
Character creation should be quick and painless. Every player should be able to quickly pick up the creation process, and be able to create a full character in under half an hour. Character ARCHETYPES will aid this, and BACKGROUND POINTS will help to create individual characters, without creating too many stereotypes.
The CHARACTER SHEET will be split into sections, one the “public” one, the other listing those abilities that a player doesn’t want other players to see. The idea is to create an A5 style folded sheet for player reference.
As PC groups usually have a mixture of different backgrounds and social status, STATUS POINTS can used to rank a character in social or political situations. A lowly Brass farmer would be less likely to elicit a favourable political reaction than a Gold Senator!
Characters can learn other skills, but they must receive training to do so; although some skills are innate, others can be taught. A character may act as a teacher at any level of ability, but they have more chance the better they are at doing things. TRAINING POINTS can be used to buy new skills and progress.
ARCHETYPES merely act as a starting block – players may call their characters whatever they wish after creation. ARCHETYPES merely provide a framework for a starting character: starting equipment, skills, and a background.
BACKGROUND POINTS can be used to customise a character, adding new abilities, allies, or advantages.
DISADVANTAGES can be used to increase the number of background points available, by handicapping a character in some way.
The STATISTICS should be d6/percentile-based, making them convertible to other systems with any luck.
SKILLS are a part of the archetype, and appear in a form of SKILL ADDS. Each SKILL ADD means the Player has an extra dice to roll when testing STATISTICS for a skill. If a PC has no knowledge of a SKILL the test requires, the test is carried out on half the STATISTIC. This means that there is no such thing as an automatic success or failure. Someone can still swing a sword and get lucky! And even blademasters may make mistakes…
One thing I am keen to avoid is the stereotyped wizards and clerics so prevalent in fantasy games: there should be no generic classes: wizard, warrior, rogue, and priest for example. The basic structure of the game should reflect this and hopefully provide a far richer experience. It should also prevent the “you’re a cleric; what healing spells do you have?” stereotype for example. To illustrate what I mean I’ll use the four classes mentioned above and break down what I feel is wrong with them:
- The Wizard is usually portrayed as a puny weakling, only able to cast a few spells that can help a group, and being totally useless if involved with melee – at least at the beginning. They also can’t use armour or certain types of weapons in some games. To me this has always seemed ridiculous: while armour has some bearing on the ability of a PC to cast spells, it should not prevent it. The Mandragora magi train extensively in combat and weapons, and have at least a working knowledge of military tactics and their application. They are also taught how to defend themselves so will be able to handle weapons without too many penalties. Also, in fantasy literature no one has ever considered how magical swords are created! A sword may be well-crafted by a weaponsmith, but a wizard would still need to test it for balance and weight before enchanting it.
- The traditional stereotype of Warrior implies that the character has been a fighter all his life and has no knowledge of magic. In a magic rich society like the Mandragora he would at least have received some form of magical training. Maybe he possesses no skill in the Art, but he can still recognise magic for what it is. He may not be able to cast spells but he would be trained to defend himself and plan an attack accordingly. He may even recognise common spells and their casting. Warriors should also acquire some ability in stealth and concealment, normally the provision of Rogue characters in RPGs. In my opinion soldiers would be adept at concealing their presence and stealthy when they need to be – maybe even more so considering the armour and equipment they carry.
- The Rogue is always expected to be sneaky and is usually sent to the front of the party to scout and find traps, as well as having some ability to backstab an enemy. They also tend to be the least trusted PC in the party! The scouting role can be fulfilled by anyone with some skills at concealment or perceptive ability. In a number of cases, the difference between Rogue and Warrior is insignificant – but Rogues are expected to be weaker than Warriors. The ability to hide, track, and notice traps can all be acquired by other classes too. The TunnelRunners for example have an extensive scouting knowledge, yet are extremely capable warriors.
- The Priest class is the stereotypical Cleric who heals wounds and creates spells to lift spirits or influence emotions. They are also staunch foes of the forces of evil. Usually, they are based upon some form of quasi-Christian religion. With the shades-of-grey theme running through the game, the Mandragora would not regard good and evil as separate moralistic standpoints. So the concept of religion in the game has been almost eradicated – the cult of Mandrathea is more of a set of ideals than beliefs. The Sacred Ones are expected to provide a ‘benchmark’ as it were to all Mandragora. Also the abilities to heal wounds or raise the dead should not be common place or easy. Like the Wizard class, Priests are limited in the types of weapon they can use: why? Any Sacred One may have had weapon training before they answered their calling: if a PC is good with a sword, why would they switch to a warhammer?
All in all, these classes may provide a basic framework for other games, but they are redundant in the Mandragora RPG. By allowing PC to pick up other skills and having a basic archetype, it means that a PC will never have the same mix of abilities. It also helps add to the experience of the game; rather than having a thief, fighter, wizard and cleric, you have a much more interesting group.
Also not everyone may be what they appear: a Battlemagi (or HellBinder, or BoneCaller!) may fight as a soldier, only using his spells when he himself is in danger. All the other PCs may know him simply as a soldier.
There are disadvantages to this generic view. It may be that some abilities found in a conventional group are missing, such as no one being able to cast spells or track, but these can be compensated for. A group could always hire a scout or Magi.
So here ends part 1. Coming up next, that old-bugbear-in-plate-armour: Alignment (and how the Mandragora couldn’t give a damn)!
Well, I completed my work on the The Secret Fire RPG yesterday, right on schedule. Having never been involved on developing an RPG on a real basis, this has proved something of a learning curve for me. It will be officially released at GenCon – yes, THAT GenCon!
When you design as part of a team, there’s a sort of momentum to things. You can throw ideas into the mix and you often find that one person’s discarded idea is another’s inspiration. One of the earliest decisions was to go non-OGL, and this freed us up to take a look at what we liked, and what didn’t work. It’s interesting to note that the L&L team at Secret Fire games come from different generations of RPGs. I started with the 1st edition Dragonlance series, and Fighting Fantasy (I still have that dungeon somewhere); others started with original D&D or 3.5. The system is crunchy enough for sticklers, but there’s a lot of flavour to it as well.
When we ran Nova Games, the PBM partnership, it was very different. Dave and I both had our own games, and although we did dabble a little in each others games but we never went the road that Secret Fire is going with TSF. It’s a huge undertaking, more so when there’s a big whammy involved too (which I can’t say more about at this time!), and the whole process is actually very interesting. I’m going to love to see the finished book especially in its printed format – I’d love to be able to do bookbinding or similar, but I don’t know where I’d find the time or materials.
What I also find interesting is that more people are returning to the RPG hobby, often introducing their children to it. TSF should appeal to folk of all ages, especially those returning to the hobby. It encourages creative thought as well. I’ve hated that whole sameness of character that you get with feats and min/maxing of characteristics that happens these days in RPGs, especially D&D. TSF rewards a player who plays his character, not a group of numbers that have been tweaked. There’ s no such thing as a bad character in L&L.
What also strikes me is that we’ve come full circle, with many people returning to the fantasy genre. For a number of years we’ve had fads for particular games, some of which are vastly different from the fantasy genre – this doesn’t mean that they are any more adult or “better”. Like the whole division between LARP, computer RPGs, and pen and paper RPGs – they appeal to different people, and for different reasons. Just because a game is advertised as “dark” or “gritty” doesn’t mean that its a particularly “grown-up” game – let’s not think about what a Twilight series RPG would be like (there probably is one, or will be – where’s Yog-Sothoth when you need him?!). The dystopian future idea was big in the 90s (Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020), and still is (CthulhuTech) – but became a little stale. They became victims of their own success, with cyberpunk time-line canons needing constant revision in later editions.
The point I’m trying to make is that no matter what genre of RPG you play, you shouldn’t treat those who like a different genre any different: there’s a lot of arrogance in the RPG hobby, a perception that if you play or run a fantasy RPG (D&D or L&L for example) then you’re not a “proper” GM. That’s total nonsense. Yes, some games are more complicated than others, but we’ve had a lot of fun with simple systems like Star Wars D6, and a lot of my players have fond memories of these games. A complicated system like CthulhuTech’s Framewerk or Shadowrun have done the same thing.
Oh, and one final thing. I was speaking to a friend who participates in Edinburgh’s Vampire LARP, Embraced (http://www.embraced.org.uk). I thought I’d mention the fact that they’re always on the lookout for new blood (sorry!), i.e. new players as it were. They’re quite a close knit group so if you’re new to Edinburgh it might be worth a visit if you’re looking for new friends. There’s always ORC Edinburgh as well – it’s also worth me mentioning my Gaming in Edinburgh page as well.