You Only Live Twice: Espionage RPG’s and Gaps in the Genre

June 10, 2011 3 comments

As I still struggle to return to Marrakesh with my players (as I talked about in The Selfish GM), I thought I’d run something a touch different. That is to say, a mix of Ocean’s 11, Casino Royale, Inception, and the Italian Job.

Armed with a playlist of the soundtrack from those and a few other movies (notably The Dark Knight and Tron), I ran a variation of Andy’s “City Lights, Late Nights, and Encyption Chip 416,” detailed in his upcoming Pendulum supplement for gamemasters. Emphasis on the variation, as I did not have the time or fortitude to roll not one, but two pre-gens for each of my players.

Because I already had eight at my table. Ha.

Systematic Sampling

Fast, Furious, and Fun

The first decision I faced concerned the system itself. Because I had some experience running and playing it at college I defaulted to Savage Worlds, its simplicity seeming all the more appealing in light of my very full game table. It should say something that I was able to create eight characters in just two hours or so, though admittedly I had the Savage Worlds Character Generator at my disposal.

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as being too simple, too streamlined. Where I wanted–even needed–complexity, I was on my own. A prominent aspect of the adventure involves hacking into the casino’s servers to disrupt (or divert, depending on your alignment) a mafia funds transfer, but I had little to no resources to draw from the Explorer’s Edition. I didn’t want my tech-savvy players to resort to rolling and re-rolling Knowledge(Computer Use) every round while their compatriots started a fire-fight.

I needed something more.

A Little Game about Spies, Crooks, Missions and Heists

Going off a strange gut feeling, I decided to stop by the online store of my favorite game designer, John Wick, and see see if there was any material I could use for “City Lights.” Sure enough, he’d recently released Wilderness of Mirrors 002, which was just what I was after.

I tore through the 20-page PDF in half an hour, and was really impressed with a lot of what I saw, but couldn’t think of a way to adapt the material to Savage Worlds quickly. The system runs on a dice pool of d6’s, much like Houses of the Blooded, with the Virtues translated to areas of Expertise. What I really loved about it was the concept of players designing their own missions and being rewarded with more in-game bonuses for every layer of difficulty they added. Requiring a Source for the information regarding the mission’s plans provides an easy lever for Operations (codeword for the GM) to pull when the need for a complication arises.

But this ability to plan your own mission, as well as the concept of narrative control (remember Privilege from HotB?), is a hard concept for new gamers to grasp, and for some old-hat role-players as well. “What do you mean, we don’t roll to get the GM to talk more? We have to decide what we do ourselves?” is the usual reaction, replete with deer-in-headlights faces.

Finally, I wasn’t sure if my players wanted the cutthroat nature of the system. In addition to assigning a leader for the mission based on whose skills are most relevant to the task at hand, Ops designates an agent to be put on “abeyance,” meaning he or she was disposable, or perhaps even needed to be eliminated. “Trust” dice are given to players who are actively sabotaging their teammates. Ops included. But does the leader really believe that the agent earned this status? Yet, it’s the only way besides from using up the limited mission points to get more dice for a particularly risky action…

Sadly, it was already 4:00 and I had a game to run at 7:30. I’d have to put Wilderness of Mirrors 002 on the backburner, hopefully to playtest another day and review it more thoroughly.

Beyond Espionage, Beyond Military Mayhem

So I turned to Spycraft 2.0, albeit too late in the game. Clocking it at 500 pages, this is a hell of a tome. You want complexity? They give you complexity. With twelve spy-related classes to choose from, there’s more room for specialization than I’ve seen in most other RPG’s. This makes sense, because espionage is a highly-specialized profession, and this book is dedicated to it and it alone. And so they have fully-developed rules for arbitrating complex technological and interpersonal “skill challenges,” ranging from chases to hacking to seduction. This was what I needed.

I printed out the cards from the PDF and gave them to my players when they were racing against the double-crossing agent Esquire to hack the bank transfer first. We couldn’t use the Lead mechanic outright, though, and I had to halve the modifiers for use with Savage Worlds, but they gave the process a level of realism and a measure of spice we wouldn’t have gotten from Savage Worlds alone.

Up and Coming to the Genre

As I was researching systems I came across Mark Meredith’s own espionage game, Pointman, Hacker & Thief, but it was still in the design stage. Those interested in the system have brought up a lot of good suggestions in a thread over at the RPG Table Talk forums, and I’m looking forward to see what he brings to the genre. Perhaps he can even fill in a few of the gaps I found while running my heist game on Tuesday, namely, bringing the locations to life, integrating actual gambling, and devising a stealth mini-game that’s both tricky and fun.

Gaps in the Genre

Location, Location, Location

Part of what sticks with the reader from the Bond movies are the exotic locales he visits. The underwater battle in Thunderball, a Russian satellite station in Goldeneye, the Ice Palace in Die Another Day, and the floating opera stage in Quantum of Solace. Wikipedia estimates he visits three countries per film, with sixty countries on his passport in total. Bond gets around, same way he does with his ladies.

Location should matter mechanically, too. Ideally it’d be nice to have a couple of classic (inspired by movies and books) and new backdrops for GM’s who are feeling the time crunch to drop down and use with little prep. Each location would affect dice rolls in a number of different ways, taking a cue from the Fortune and Despair cards recently released by Wizards of the Coast. For instance, in certain Central American countries American and British agents would get negatives to any charisma/diplomacy type rolls, but an increase to streetwise (to find illegal goods) and thievery (because the police force is absent/corrupt). Maps, features, and maybe an NPC contact or two would round each entry out nicely, and would make the book they’re included in worth the money.

Included in location would be time. I know I’d certainly love to see Edwardian, World War II, and Cold War spy scenarios or skins (re-named guns, gadgets, and the like); bonus points if the settings are distinctive to the time period, such as the RMS Olympic, 1940s Berlin, or a Russian nuclear submarine, respectively.

I can suddenly see a Pendulum-style spy adventure jumping between a past and present version of the same location, as players learn the terrible truth about what was thought to be a satellite accident as past agents, and then dealing with the modern ramifications in the present…

But no high-class world of espionage and intrigue is complete without a few cards, cocktails, and casinos.

Hit, Split, Double Down

Though by no means is a full-on manual necessary, gambling should be treated in some detail in any spy game. Blackjack, Craps, Monte Bank, Texas Hold’em–the list goes on. Then you have horse-racing, sports-betting, even the stock market, for all intents and purposes. More than just briefly describing what it is and how it’s played, a few examples of how to integrate the game into the plot would be excellent. Similar to how Bond wins Dimitrios’ car in Casino Royale, using gambling to reveal information, characterize major villains, and potentially turn the tide of the plot heightens the risk–and the stakes–for the players involved more than any single die roll could ever do.

Luck in the Shadows

Better yet if one could figure out how to integrate gambling into a mini-game/skill-challenge, the same way certain magic is handled in Deadlands: Reloaded: you’re essentially playing poker against the Devil to see how effective, or how botched, the spell is. The skill challenge that needs it most, I think, is stealth. I have yet to discover a way to have my players sneak around with the same tension as I felt in the Metal Gear Solid games (though perhaps adding the exclamation point sound would elicit a laugh or two). No cardboard boxes need apply.

My instincts say that you’d want a map for the player to feel like he or she is moving around tactically, instead of just making stabs “in the dark,” though I could see the blue-moon “blind” mission providing a good deal of tension, especially if it stands out from the rest of the stealth challenges. This is another place where the systems could shine, by giving us a few tiles of corridors, rooms, and surveillance/security devices to rearrange and create a unique map. Otherwise, the best I can think of for us GM’s is to pillage our Prima guides for video game level maps, which may or may not be recognizable to some of our players. Certain maps, though, might hold a level of nostalgic appeal. The Oblask Dam level from Timesplitters 2, for instance.

Alternatively, an abridged version of a strategy game like Chess or Backgammon could make a particularly complex infiltration mission more fun. Really just anything to break up the monotony of opposed stealth and perception rolls. Maybe there’s a system I’m not aware of that already has something like this? If so, I’d love to know.

Wrapping it Up

On the one hand we have hyper-complex systems like Spycraft, and on the other, rules-light like Savage Worlds and Wilderness of Mirrors 002. Where do we find a happy medium, with rules enough to make for challenging stealth missions and hacking attempts while still running a game that moves at the same brisk pace of our favorite spy movies? One with exotic locations and memorable time periods that affect gameplay and that integrate gambling into the plot itself. With upcoming releases like Pointman, Hacker & Thief, maybe we’ll get to see some of these genre gaps filled.


Find Your Dark Side Contest: Update

June 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Congratulations to the winners of the Dungeons & Dragons Find Your Dark Side Contest! I hope Wizards releases their entries so we can see what sort of dastardly characters they came up with so we can use them as villains in our own campaigns.

Now that the contest is over, I don’t have to worry about legalities or disqualifying myself. So without further ado, I give you the Blackguard Nyxelle:

Never forget that it is the brightest lights that cast the darkest shadows.

The woman I loved had hair as rays of daybreak, eyes like the periwinkle sky, with glowing cheeks and dewy lips. I played dusk to her dawn, and we were of a soul, bound together by the very turning of the world.

Yet her heart belonged to Pelor, and there was no room for all that I was.

For the virtuous Paladin Solandre was but human. Where she had been spurned, grew spite. What generosity she gave sowed haughtiness. When righting injustice, she became ruthless.

She couldn’t live with herself, and so she cast me out. That she might be a pure and righteous vessel for the Shining One.

She unwittingly created her own darkest enemy, the Blackguard Nyxelle; indeed, she unleashed herself upon the world—every ounce of jealousy, avarice, cruelty. But most of all, her Fury.

Everything she loves, I hate, and everything she hates, I love.

I will find her, follow her. The Shade must stay close to its Source.

All I wanted was to be with you, my love.

I’ll do whatever it takes for you to love me, too.

Image © Wizards of the Coast, from the new Shadowfell: Gloomwrought Box Set.

Categories: Portfolio

Habits of a Writer Ep 1: Genmaicha

June 2, 2011 1 comment

(If this seems off topic to you RPGer’s out there, consider that genmaicha is a soothing, distinctive, and atmospheric tea to offer at your next session of Legend of the Five Rings, Blood & Honor, or any Japanese role-playing setting.)

I woke up to write this morning and discovered–to my abject horror–a fresh-brewed pot of coffee, but no milk, no creamer, nor half n half in the house. And damned if I was going to forsake my pajamas and drive out to the convenience store to get some. Better to scrounge around the house for some sort of substitute for my morning writer-fuel. Good thing my brother is something of a tea connoisseur.

Better than sencha (green tea) is genmaicha (brown rice tea), green tea combined with roasted brown rice, some grains of which have popped. It tastes somewhat fuller-bodied, and less bitter than its rice-less counterpart. It is also traditionally cheaper, because the rice acted as filler. It certainly wakes you up (green teas are high in caffeine), though you have to be careful drinking any green teas in the morning–the minimal oxidation processing that gives it its robust flavor can also induce nausea on an empty stomach, so be sure to eat something first. I prefer plain white rice in the morning, though I don’t know any local farms where I could get eggs suited for eating raw atop it, as I did in Ohio.

As with all Japanese teas, the trick when brewing is to allow the boiled water to cool for two to three minutes. We have an earthenware kyusu teapot that comes with a built-in filter for loose teas, though you could just as easily brew the tea loose in a cup or place a strainer (though not too tight, or the tea won’t steep properly!) in your traditional Western tea pot. Allow it to become a bright yellow-green, and pour, traditionally into yunomi, those adorable little teacups you’ve probably seen going for heinous prices at Japanese department stores. As with most things Japanese, there are wildly expensive versions of just about anything (including ohashi, chopsticks), though with a bit of google-fu you can find more affordable products for us peasants.

Genmaicha is almost assuredly sold at your local Asian grocer, though much of what you find online is going to be higher-quality items. Depending on the variety, it may become slightly harder to find in the coming months, given the destruction of the latest tea crop in Kanagawa, Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures due to radiation levels. But everything you’ll find on the shelves now is all from before the March 11th tragedy, so please don’t let that scare you.

What I love about brown rice tea is how much lighter, brisker, and more refreshing it is compared to the jet-black coffee with rich creamers I usually sip while writing. It’s certainly a more summery drink (though in Japan I think it’s considered more wintry), one that is like to become a habit for me.

Perhaps the most important part of these little habits is that, in the same way that lighting incense before prayer gets me in the right (altared, one might even say) mindset, performing a pre-writing ritual can help overcome the initial blockages at come with a blank screen. Go through your email, social media, forum posts and blogroll first thing, so it’s no longer a distraction. Brew the tea in the meanwhile. Then, when you finally open up your word processor of choice, breathe in the aroma and enjoy the first sip. Bang those keys. And demolish that daily wordcount.

Et tu, dear writers? What is your beverage of choice when sitting down at the keyboard? Is coffee still the almighty, or does it depend on the season?

Categories: For Writers

Gods for a Highlander

May 31, 2011 1 comment

With Eric and my characters in Le Morte de Mordred both having pagan gods in our backgrounds, I thought it might be fun to flesh them out a little more, replete with alignments and domains for Dungeons & Dragons 4e, along with suggested classes and builds to fit. The names are Scottish Gaelic, though you could make them more or less Irish, Welsh, or Saxon according to your taste or setting.

The Greater


Moon Den Mother
Alignment: Lawful Good
Domains: Life, Moon, Protection
She who howls the moon into the sky, who counts the months, governs the cycles of females and childbirth. With her consort Alluidh-geal, the Silverwolf, she leads her pack, raises her young, and defends against any who would threaten her territory or den. She is also the harsh mother, known to kill pups if they won’t be able to make it on their own. But to those who make it she is fiercely loyal, and would lay down her life for her young if need be.

Winter is her season; the solstice is most holy to her. When the sun has retreated and snow blankets the land, it is to our dens that we return, to spend time with family, and it is the moon that brings some comfort and light to the longest night.

The devoted might wear an animal claw or tooth as her symbol.

Suggested Classes: Any Primal class, especially Wardens, Shamans, and Druids, but also Beastmaster Rangers


Soaring Sun Father
Alignment: Good
Domains: Freedom, Skill, Sun
He who flies high, sharing the sky with the sun, unbound from the earth and keen in sight. His golden wings are the rays of the sun, the ripening wheat fields, the warmth of life itself. And yet, he also is a bringer of death. The golden eagle is a peerless hunter, swift and precise in the kill. He is the best at what he does, and serves as an example for all to follow. Freemen and craftsmen are his, and those held in captivity or darkness pray to him for release.

Summer is his season; the solstice is most holy to him. The sun is at its zenith, the long days providing the farmers and craftsmen extra hours for their work. The fields are full of beasts and the earth’s bounty, ready to be harvested by those who have the skill–and drive–to take them.

The devoted might wear a brown feather or golden disk as his symbol.

Suggested Classes: Any Martial class, especially Fighters, Rangers, and Warlords, but also the Bard


Stag Star-bearer
Alignment: Unaligned
Domains: Arcana, Fate, Wilderness
The white stag is the one who carries the stars in his antlers, walking across the entire world from dusk to dawn, that they might see the deeds men have wrought, both good and ill. He cannot be found except by those who are not looking, in those remote places of the wilderness rarely touched by men, and in those whose pure hearts still beat in time with the land. As keeper of the stars, he is privy to their wisdom, whispering all that they have seen in his tufted ears, and portents of the future besides.

The transition seasons are his time, the spring and fall equinoxes when life itself is in a state of balance. To those with the knowledge, stars are tools of navigation, be they for journeys of the foot or soul.

The devoted might wear forked twigs with tiny glass pebbles as his symbol.

Suggested Classes: Any Arcane class, especially Cosmic or Wild Sorcerers and Fey or Star Pact Warlocks, but also Seekers

The Lesser


Shadow-stalker Serpent
Alignment: Evil
Domains: Change, Darkness, Poison, Trickery
The Greater gods did not deign to give her a place at their side, though shadow should have been hers. Cast out from alongside her brothers and sister, she has lain in wait, plotting their demise, waiting for the time to strike. The black adder is often hidden, waiting to bite the unwary adventurer, and let her venom do the rest. Sneaks and thieves pray to her for luck in the shadows, and apothecaries look to her to perfect their poisons. She is the patron of the traitor, the lady of turmoil, and the consort of darkness.

There is no time that is hers alone. She is always there, lurking out of sight. Moonless nights are her time, and eclipses are her high holy sabbats.

The devoted do not wear a symbol, or they might wear another god’s, so as to not be marked as hers.

Suggested Classes: Any Shadow class, especially Assassins and Rogues, but also Vestige and Dark Pact Warlocks

A Contest-Worthy Character?

May 29, 2011 Leave a comment

I was sitting at the red light at Five Corners, puzzling over who I wanted to submit to DriveThruRPG’s Tell Us About Your Character Contest. None of my creations immediately leapt out at me, and the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Why was I looking at Solandre, my blood elf paladin from World of Warcraft, or Ragnavar, my Black-jeweled Eyrien Warlord Prince from a Black Jewels Trilogy forum RPG, or even Ealasaid, my Vistani Seeress of Le Morte de Mordred fame.

I shouldn’t have been looking to other’s games at all–not when I had a novel of my own to plumb.

But that says something about my characters, doesn’t it? That’s there’s something not quite right about them. They’re not fully-fledged yet. Not distinctive enough yet. Or lovable. Yet.

It got me to thinking about what kind of character would win that contest, and I wonder if I couldn’t use those traits to try and develop them more completely, if not in time to try and win a tablet, at least for the novel I have half-way outlined.

Here’s what I think I’ve found:

Driven, and Dogged

Nobody cares about the character who doesn’t want something, and bad. But a good goal isn’t enough, either. He needs to meet enough resistance to make it a real challenge. Enough to make it seem nigh-impossible. Maybe it is impossible, but at least the struggle will keep us turning the page. Some have said that if Lord of the Rings is grim, A Song of Ice and Fire is downright bleak. Isn’t that nigh-overwhelming conflict part of why we love it so?

Stands out from the Crowd

The Hound’s no Florian

There’s no such thing as true creativity, but at least we can make original arrangements of the same tired tropes. Better yet, what about turning that cliche around? Isn’t that just what George R. R. Martin does with his characters–takes most of what we’re used to in fantasy and turns it on our head? What convention(s) do(es) your character confront?

Engages the Audience

And what does that character have to say to the audience? What is the fundamental theme–message, maybe even–that our readers take from our hero/ine’s tale? What does it say about our world that the Hound is more honorable than any knight?* Or that love proves folly for Robb? Why should we, at our core, care to see your character succeed? What do we learn about ourselves in the process?

But Wait, There’s More

Yet, those elements alone won’t be enough to sway the judges, not in that contest. It looks to be that form is just as important. How do you relay all three above elements in 400 words or less? You’ll need to mix enough flash fiction into the backstory to make it more narrative (or other creative presentation) than mere encyclopedia entry. And anyone who’s made a conscious effort to write flash knows just how damn hard it really is to pack enough punch into a page or less.

Give me the novel any day. You short story and short shorts writers are the ones who’ve got it rough.

Do I have what it takes to make a winning entry? No, not yet. But I can damn well start to learn.

Your Turn

What other traits befitting a memorable hero/ine would you count here? Do you agree with the ones I’ve chosen? Disagree?

*Note: I’ve only read about one-fourth through Storm of Swords, so forgive me if I like some of the foresight the rest of you may have.

It’s Laid Out in the Cards

May 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Happened upon this today and thought it was too cool not to share. For those of you who understand the language of symbolism, or even those of you who are just interested in Tarot and other divination methods in role-playing games:

The High Priestess

A Tarot-based Adventure Scenario Design Game


  • Standard Tarot deck (78 cards: 56 suited, 22 trumps)
  • Meeples, 5 each of a color for each PCs/Faction
  1. Assign 2 court cards from the deck for each player character. These describe 2 of the 3 key questions that define a character (who are you? what do you want? how are you trying to do that?) and are interpreted based on what’s not described by the other cards that will be played. More cards will be dealt after the initial set up of the game “board.” Continued…

I might just have to find an excuse to use this, though I can probably find a substitute for the Meeples. I know at least someone who could use this, and with my Legend: The Arthurian Tarot, no less…

Further Reading

  • It’s Written in the Stars My guide to using Astrodice to generate People, Places, and Plots for your next session.
  • Learn Tarot Best place for quickly referencing the standard meanings for the cards.
  • Tarot for Writers Liked the Design Game? How about a book-length version, tailored specifically for writers?

The Selfish GM

May 28, 2011 10 comments

When you realize that your once-weekly game becomes a chore, something you dread and stress over, you’re doing something wrong. The game is supposed to be fun, for players and GM alike. So this week and next I’m taking a break to re-focus and hopefully answer the question that’s bugging me most: why have I lost interest in running my campaign? And, more importantly, what can I do to fix this?

I see Grand Vizier
Rainier Desmarins

They see Grand Vizier Jafar

It seems to be boiling down to the truth that many GMs run the games that they wish they were playing, as Telas points out at Gnome Stew. Or we try, to, anyway. Right now I just don’t like the way my players are taking the game. I have an epic movie playing in my head, something along the lines of the original Assasin’s Creed or Kingdom of Heaven. At the table I feel more like I’m running Aladdin and its sequels, with progressively crasser jokes and characterization. My players have even gone so far as to refer to one of my top-ranking NPC’s, the Lord Admiral and Grand Vizier Ranier Desmarins, as Jafar.

I’d rather they be brushing elbows with the thieves guild, delving into the politics of the city, while they would rather try to steal the underwear off a drunken nobleman or fling shit in the eyes of their French adversaries.

And I have a hard time standing by and watching them make a mockery of my homebrew setting. So on Wednesday, after a hour and a half of what felt like pulling teeth, I gave up, unceremoniously sent everybody home, and called off the next week’s session. (For any other GM’s out there, please, please listen to your gut instincts and deal with the problem before it blows up in your face, like it did for me.)

But there’s a bigger question at stake here: is that really their problem, or is it mine?

Am I too prideful as a GM? Am I violating Oakspar’s cardinal rule that the game is about the players, not the campaign world (“Lessons from GMing with my Girlfriend”)?

It may very well be the case that I’m too protective of my own creations, since I had a much easier time with their torturing of the NPC’s when I was running Dark Sun pre-made adventures. In any creative work, ego does get involved, and it’s a better wo/man than I who can keep them separate all the time.

But at the same time, isn’t a little too much to ask the GM to run a game he has no interest in running? He or she isn’t the group’s private role-playing server to program however they like. I firmly believe we have a right to have fun, too.

So then we have to come to a compromise. And that requires, most of all, communication. (Looks like I should have taken Gamemastering’s advice from the first section better to heart.)

When I set out to start a campaign in late January, I essentially offered Marrakesh as-is to my players; I had complete creative control, and they could either play if they want or leave, as one player did early on. It’s likely my own inflexibility that led to the total disintegration of session Wednesday night. And so it’s with a heavy heart that I realize I need to tie it up, reach a suitable conclusion, and move on to another setting, genre, maybe even system.

My next campaign setting?

Because I need to run the game that we both want to play. If that means I need to find some different players, then so be it. They’ll be happier for it too, to be able to play with a GM who likes–encourages even–their wild hijinks.

Am I selfish, then? Maybe. I want storytellers and actors who are in it for a serious campaign, preferably with a good dose of dark fantasy and intrigue.

Then again, so is everyone who plays–we all want to have fun our way. The trick is to find the way to bend those styles just enough to make it enjoyable for all, player and GM alike.