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).
I play and run a large variety of games. I’ve also created several settings over the years. I’m trying to list them all here!
- D&D Against the Odds setting
- D&D Ashes of Freedom setting
- D&D New World setting
- Call of Cthulhu including my own Arunstoun setting.
- Dresden Files RPG
- Dark Edinburgh
- Warhammer 40,000 RPGs
- Call of Cthulhu RPG.
- Rules for the Necroscope series by Brian Lumley.
- Cthulhutech RPG, featuring my Through the Looking Glass setting.
- Necroscope for Call of Cthulhu.
- Star Wars RPG, Saga edition but mainly the West End Games version.
- Marvel Superheroes (TSR)
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
- Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom RPG
I’m feeling fairly fired up creatively speaking. I’m planning to get a lot of development work done this weekend for The Secret Fire, the new RPG that I’m helping develop. Certain shackles have been released (the game won’t be OGL any more) – so the D20 side of things is less restrictive, and we can now mess about with the game mechanics. I’ve also had to sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) so can’t say too much about the actual really cool things that are happening with the game. See the official site of The Secret Fire for more snippets of information! All I can say is that I’m very happy to be involved with it and L&L looks like it could be a winner. I’ve also created a local page for TSF here (which also has some cool merchandise)- it is likely that Against the Odds would return if I’m able to use TSF for it.
Anyways, one of my tasks as developer is to create a new take on a number of old monsters, and I’ve got the undead (I’ve already done some of the monsters for the playtest adventure, Andragog’s Keep). I’ve completed the text for the Ghoul, Wight, and Wraith, and now I’m turning my attention on the remaining staples of Undead monsters – the Zombie, Skeleton, Vampire and Mummy. I’m deliberately avoided making them appear to be stock RPG monsters, and try to make them individuals with their own goals – especially in the case of Mummies and Vampires: it’s challenging, but immensely rewarding. I’ve also taken one other monster for the time being – and you may as well leave that 10′ pole at home.
I’ve other tasks for L&L as well, and the next part of the work that I have to do will be quite a challenge and may well prove to be a insight into my own psyche. It’ll probably be the darkest work I’ve ever done for an RPG – think of the Book of Vile Darkness from D&D. Those of you that have played certain parts of Ashes of Freedom, Cthulhutech, and my Necroscope games know that some of my ideas can be ewwww! (and just how nasty my mind can work) so I’m actually looking forward to seeing what I can do – its a collaborative effort so there may be a certain amount of competition between us to see who can come up with nastiest ideas!
I’m a huge fan of the Call of Cthulhu RPG from Chaosium. I’ve run the game occasionally over the years, but I intend to kick off the epic Horror on the Orient Express campaign at ORC over the next year, and I also have Shadows over Scotland to run! Arunstoun, my new setting, is also going to be part of the Dark Edinburgh theme.
The system is also what I use to run my Necroscope games too.
NOTE: this page is still under construction!!!
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No, it’s not a reference to my flat or my mental state. It’s a reference to the HP Lovecraft creation known as Nyarlathotep. He/it is also mentioned in the Metallica song the The Thing that Should Not Be, which is about Innsmouth and the Deep Ones.
With Halloween creeping closer, I’m getting back into the Call of Cthulhu RPG. To this extent I’m awaiting the new edition of the super-campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep – over 100 hours of play contained within (I also intend to get the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion). The plan is for me to run this at ORC, probably starting in the New Year – I anticipate a high turnover of characters, as it is supposed to be lethal! This should work rather well for anyone new to ORC or looking for one shot games, and I’m going to really try and make it the highlight of my GMing “career”.
I’ve not run much Call of Cthulhu in recent years although my eBranch games (see Necroscope) have used the system. As intimated on the Home page, I’m also working another on the setting of “Arunstoun” for the game. Some of it I will use in Masks (risks less sanity when I say it like that!), and I’ve a great idea for a new Mythos race: how this will fit into the campaign as a whole I don’t yet know. However, as I get on with the campaign I’ll likely blog about the progress, or put stuff in the wiki.
Arunstoun is going to be set in the West of Midlothian, not in Edinburgh itself, and will likely be quite similar to Ramsey Campbell’s Cthulhu Mythos setting, Goatswood.