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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.

Chekhov’s Gun, Raising the Stakes, and Due Cause

March 12, 2011 Leave a comment

As I pore over my new Dungeon Master’s Book (pooh-pooh Essentials all you want–the DM side is simpler and contains all the errata necessary to combat the last few years’ power creep) and Dungeon Tiles for Athas, the City, and the Dungeon, I remember that I still need to prep for the meat of tomorrow’s session. No, it’s not the monster tokens or the fucking badass 3D cart they’ll be defending a few sessions from now, it’s the story, the challenge, and their desires that really make the game.

And, as one still new to DM’ing, I grapple with all three.

Avoiding the Plot Holes

The best thing about reading a book for me–regardless of genre, though I find mystery and thriller pay the most attention to it–is the realization at the end that you’ve seen the trail lain before you, but it wasn’t until the end that you saw how it all connected. Subtle foreshadowing, twists that you should have seen coming, and the excitement of a wild, but justified ending. It’s a bad book when you can’t quite see why things worked out the way they did. Most likely, the author failed to adhere to basic rules of storytelling (or is doing so on purpose–thanks, postmodernism).

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall…”

Chekhov’s well-known adage and the story beats covered in Robin D. Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points both speak to laying down the “piping” and having that “piping” reassert itself later, resulting in the aforementioned “Aha! It all makes sense now!” feeling that has one been primary goals of mine as I run Marrakesh for the second time. For those of you unfamiliar with my homebrew setting, here’s a quick teaser:

The Narbonne have occupied the port city of Marrakesh for more than a generation now, and tensions are running high as Queen Shar’azi al-Maghreb formally recognizes Lord Admiral Rainier Desmarins as her Chief Vizier. In the background, the cult of Ioun has gained considerable political clout, and rumors abound of a crown princess gone missing. The Merchant Prince Tariq threatens a boycott of Narbonnais goods just as a rash of bankruptcies hits the noble quarter, but the opium trade and Red Moon houses are as profitable as ever. Winds bring news from the south of a religious civil war in the Dragonlands, and the deserts themselves are coming alive as ifrits, djinni, and mirages walk among mortals. What path will our adventurers forge for themselves in a land rife with intrigue, treachery, and wonder?

Think French-occupied Algeria meets typical fantasy meets the blackpowder age, with thieves guilds and dubious loyalties aplenty.

It’s a setting I’m rather proud of, from a storyline point of view, but when I ran it for the first time over the summer, I had a terrible time conveying the story to my players. Most of it was my sheer inexperience as a DM (I was a novice then, but I’d like to think I’m at least intermediate now), but part of it was a failure of that delicate balancing act between giving them too little or too much information.

A Little Bit Louder Now (Shout!)

Now, I opt for the former. Chances are that unless your characters are operating on an identical wavelength, what seems blatantly obvious to me may still be overlooked by my players, yet if I plant the smallest of seeds (thinking, “See what a sneaky, ingenious GM I am?”) it flies completely under their radar. Don’t try to play the clever one.

Unless your group has been with you a long time and know you’ve a reputation for the intrigue/twist sort of thing, the seemingly-bold detail is just subtle enough to be remembered later but not glaring now. Context is everything, and your players don’t have it.

So, like on the stage, one needs to really lay on the blush and foundation, exaggerate your gestures, dress a little more brightly.

That way, they can’t miss the clues I’m laying down for them. And better that they figure out your nefarious plans early on than not all, no? Worst comes to worst, you can complicate life for them afterwards, or add a moral dilemma to it all.

Ah, so you figured out that he’s the murderer? Well, as a matter of fact, he’s been working for the man you’ve been working for… and now that you’ve blown his cover, you’re next! (See Gorky Park (1983), excellent movie.)

Better to have that “Aha!” moment than be scratching your heads at the end. I mean, you don’t want to have planned out all those intricate motives and loyalties for nothing, do you?

Raising the Stakes

I’ll admit, I didn’t think of this detail myself, but instead swiped it from Gamemastering a quality (and free!) PDF offered by Brian Jamison. Standard practice in 4th ed is to arm players to the gills with magic weapons right from the start; my group at college always got one magic item their level +1, one their level, one their level -1, and starting gold equivalent to their level. This way, we were all badasses and could min-max our abilities accordingly. (Fuck yes I will take the Boots of +1 Teleportation Distance for my teleport-gimmick swordmage that, moreover, has a 6-square teleport as a free action once per day.)

Yet, Jamison’s advice is to skip all that. Let them have a longsword and leather armor, but no more. That makes the magic items that you do give out all the more special, treasured, and most importantly, not taken for granted.

But I didn’t read that chapter until after we’d done character creation, and now my characters feel entitled to have their Terrifying Scimitar or Dwarven Chainmaille.

What can I do to bring them back down to earth without frustrating them? How do I justify taking their magic items away, and is it really justified?

Two Birds, One Stone

It was Marrakesh, the city itself, that gave me my answer. Given my setting–a colony run by foreign occupatiers who have installed their Chief Admiral as the Queen’s Grand Vizier–imposing martial law seems a logical extension of the recent power transfer that make have riled up some of the resistance. I can even make an allusion to my previous party of adventurers, saying that a recent rash of arson have prompted the Narbonnais to make the unfortunate, regrettable, but necessary decision to ban the carrying of arms and armor by anyone besides the City Guard and Royal Navy.

This way, I’ve raised the stakes, introduced a whole new dimension of play that wasn’t there before. Are they more than a walking armory? Is it their swords that win the battles, or their hearts? And when they surmount such an ostensibly high obstacle, the satisfaction will be proportionately greater to the difficulty of the task.

Which is why I loved Cataclysm Heroics so damn much. But that’s another conversation.

Of course, their first order of business should be to seek out people who can help them regain and hide their old armaments, and that will invariably lead them into the black market, the den of thieves, and Tariq al-Jawar, who is more than willing to arm them if they do his dirty work.

In upping the ante, raising the stakes, I have also provided a plot hook to get the adventurers working alongside the thieves guild. If I had one major frustration from my summer game, it was that my players were at odds with everything. Perhaps if I do not introduce the rival guilds immediately, but let them deal with one at a time first, and stop trying to be so damn cunning and ingenious as to ruin the story, we’ll all enjoy it more when they meet Ra’shal and Leyla. And all the more difficult when they meet Pierre Aveline…

But there’s one snag in my plan I’ll need to address to make it work.

Wielding a Hammer, Not Everything Is a Nail

Since adventurers are lazy, like water, always trying to find the path of least resistance, how do I ensure that they won’t just say, “Fuck it, I’m going to try to kill these guards confiscating my phat lewtz and never go to Marrakesh again!” Because, as you know, it doesn’t matter that my level four adventurers think they can take on veterans with ten plus years of experience under their belts… and guns.

Why, my pretties, I have to make sure that each of them absolutely has to go to Marrakesh, and that will require fucking with each of their characters on an emotional basis. Who said GM’s couldn’t play dirty? The players sure try to.

Due Cause

Is this potentially railroading? A little bit. But I’ve also found that given a sandbox, characters tend towards evil, raping and pillaging and wreaking havoc on their world. And you need to correct that, a little bit, or just give up on trying to plot at all. But you can only pull the Wheel of Misfortune so many times before you’ve seen it all and the deaths you visit on the helpless citizenry who’ve followed you become boring.

So I’m going to run on the assumption that Plot Is a Good, and Necessary Thing, and that as a GM it is within my rights to make sure everyone is having fun, and senseless violence is not.

Getting back on track from our siding into game philosophy…

Hit Em Where it Hurts–Their Wallet

The best way to railroad without seeming to overstep your bounds is to do so based off of what they’ve given you. Take their weakness and play on them, or even better, turn their strengths into their Achilles Heel.

One way I could do that is to take their character backgrounds and to suddenly invoke them all, but that feels a touch contrived. I’ve a much easier, and universal, plot device to unleash upon them to get them into that city:

Simple PC Greed.

The Fabled Treasure of House Madar that they’re going to uncover once they clear the restless ghosts of its murdered progenitors? Contracts with various noble officials for trading rights and privileges within Marrakesh. What’s better than treasure? Treasure that generates even more treasure!

But if they don’t want to deal with the martial law in Marrakesh, they lose out on potentially building a trade empire. Never mind the million other ways they could lose it all to the rival commercial factions in the city… the first step is always the hardest.

Maybe they’ll butt heads with al-Jawar after all. I won’t rule out the possibility, but it does cut out one of the major plot twists I have in store for them.

But a “base” in the city that’s a shop that earns them revenue? That’s just cool. We’ll see how they take to it on Saturday.

Conclusion

So there we have it, kids. I’m trying to play my hand openly (waving it around, even) while giving them a hard time, yet still finding the motivation to justify it all. Hopefully it gets us what we all want: to have a great time. Time will tell.