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.

The Characters

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.

The Plot

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!

The Gadgets

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).

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at http://orcedinburgh.co.uk and regularly play RPGs.