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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.

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A Review of Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

March 19, 2011 Leave a comment

I first stumbled on this guide to “How improvising can change the way you roleplay” on Amazon.com through my usual “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” surfing. I must not have looked too closely at the reviews, or perhaps I glossed over them, because it was met with only three reviews averaging out to a score of 3/5 stars, below my usual threshold for spending money on books.

Or maybe I was just so jazzed at the concept. Really, you’re going to tell me how to incorporate more improv into my sessions? That’s great! Since I’ve really taken to the Savage Worlds school of “less prep, more fun,” it seemed like the perfect supplement for me.

Play Unsafe

by Graham Walmsley

Often, we treat games like work. We buy shelves of thick books. We plan detailed adventures. We memorise rules. In Play Unsafe, Graham Walmsley explores what happens when you throw the serious stuff away: when you stop working, stop planning and start playing. This book explains how to make roleplaying less like work and more like play; stop killing other players’ ideas and build on them instead; and put stories at the heart of your game.

In Play Unsafe, Graham Walmsley explores what happens when you throw the serious stuff away: when you stop working, stop planning and start playing.

This book explains how to:

  • Make roleplaying less like work and more like play.
  • Stop killing other players’ ideas: and build on them instead.
  • Use status techniques to play your characters.

One of Three Crits

The Verdict:

There’s really not enough advice in the book to justify the $8 asking price for PDF, let alone $18 paperback. Sure enough, there are a few gems in its pages, but I’ve come to expect being able to get that much from blogs, or more in $5 PDF’s, like John Wick’s Play Dirty. As other reviewers have said on Amazon.com and elsewhere, you’re better off printing off forum threads or consulting the myriad resources of the ‘net on improvisation and role-playing (see Further Reading for my picks). Then again, if you consider yourself a Newbie haven’t been exposed to the RPG Blogosphere, you might find Play Unsafe worth it.

Format & Structure

The “meat” (I use the term loosely) of Play Unsafe clocks in at sixty two pages of text (sixty three, technically, but can I conscionably count this page?), leaving the extra twenty of the PDF for the Table of Contents, Section Breaks/Title Pages, Glossary, and Acknowledgment fluff. The pages are 6×9” with 1” margins and lots of extra linebreaks and whitespace, so I’m getting even fewer words on those already-scant pages. I suppose I could have easily polished it off in a single sitting, but it honestly didn’t hold my attention long enough, and I only really got through the second half by thinking, “well, at least I can review it and generate content for my blog.”

Coming from an academic background, I look to a book’s introduction to know what’s in each chapter (so I can read the least amount possible for my research paper, of course), and it’s telling that he only spends two sentences on each, whereas normally you’ll get a full paragraph, if not a page. Oh, I’m all about brevity, but there’s a difference between being concise and glossing over the material. Unfortunately, Play Unsafe does the latter most of the time.

Additionally, the Table of Contents offers another hint to this effect: the Sections last only a page or so each, or in some cases, not even. Do you really need to give me a page-by page play of your “82” page piece? The ToC should’ve been a half a page, not three.

Ah well, at least now I know everything that’s going to be covered in Play, Build, Status, Tell Stories, and Work Together, each of which averages a whopping twelve pages.

Play, Build, ???, Profit

In Play, he goes over the most fundamental principles of gamemastering off-the-cuff, which are already covered extensively elsewhere: Don’t Prep as Much (your players will derail it anyhow), instead thinking moreso in terms of Concepts, and Stop Trying to Be Cool.

“Be Boring,” “Be Obvious,” he tells us. Sure, there is something quaint about being “Plain and Simple,” but I also feel like what strikes most people as boring and obvious makes for boring and uninteresting RP. When my players come out with an ingenious idea, it’s not because they were trying to dumb it down, but because they were trying to problem-solve and come up with what seemed like the best answer to them.

“Whenever I try to be good, I’m bad,” he writes. I’ll agree with him that when you think you’re being clever and cunning it often comes off as pretentious, but don’t try to dumb it down, either. Be creative; try to think out of the box. Better to follow the maxim, “Don’t Try Too Hard.”

Build could be retitled, “Yes, and…” This is probably the #1 Rule of Gamemastering. Go look it up. It’s everywhere. It’s even in the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide. Come on. Either add something to the conversation or leave it to the Pro’s.

Next up is his Chapter on Status, which simplifies your job as a GM greatly–either turn your nose up at the PC’s, or grovel at their feet. He gives a few tips for physically conveying these emotions and when/why, but acting has never been an issue to me, and the world knows I’m no thespian. And I’d say the best way to act is to be Confident and Comfortable with your group. Once you stop being worried about looking like an ass in front of your friends (of course you look like an ass, the point is, they like it, so you shouldn’t be worried), it all flows so easily.

One point he did make well was his suggestion to bring the high low and the low high to help create stories, but unfortunately the chaff outweighs the wheat by far. Again, other gamemastering books (that I already own) cover playing NPC’s perfectly well.

Perhaps the most valuable bits of advice come in Tell Stories. At least here, he gives you four solid theories (variations on a theme of making the ordinary extraordinary) for taking what you’re given by the players (or your own whims) and making it an actual conflict, i.e. plot, on the fly. So too does he discuss foreshadowing, termed “reincorporation” in his book. The difference lies in the timing: foreshadowing requires pre-planning and thought, while “reincorporation” is taking those things that already came up and “recycling” them in your plot so you give the illusion of planning. Reincorporation is also a method to generate new plots by drawing on previous material and applying the previous four theories to it.

It’s these things that I’ve used most in my sessions–having “plot props” show up more than once, throwing in last-minute complications to keep building on a good idea, and forcing difficult choices on my players (ah, the joys of utilitarianism, or the ends versus the means).

Finally, he talks about Working Together at the table. Having read all the source material for Houses of the Blooded, it seemed to me to echo the different play styles of friendly or cutthroat games, but if you’ve never 1) Read about or 2) Experienced both, the section could be of use to you. There’s a lot of OOC advice to help achieve the most fun for all, but it really comes down to trust. Do I trust you guys enough to open up? Do I trust you guys to not run rampant with my character? Do you trust me to fuck with you, but only insofar as it adds to the game? Though he does touch on these, I wish he’d spent more time on them, instead of chugging right along through group dynamics and energy. But I suppose these topics are covered in other books.

The Bottom Line

Was it worth the price? Meh. Not least of all because I bought through LuLu originally and got ripped off at $10 when it goes for $8 at the UnStore. At $8 it seems more reasonable, but given my layout qualms and the lack of depth, and the sheer repetitiveness of material that’s freely available on the internet, I wasn’t as pleased as I could have been. One out of three crits.

Further Discussion

Since the review was also published on RPG.net, those with an account there can deliberate my review here.

Further Reading

Walmsley’s short bibliography centers on two books, Impro and Impro for Storytellers. I haven’t read them myself, but it seems like they’d be a better source–I’d rather get more detail at the expense of the “conversion” into role-playing games. I can do that by myself, most likely.

Otherwise, you might want to read “Focus on Transitions” and “Just Enough Rope” on Gnome Stew.

For “Yes, and…” see “How To Be a Better Improvisor,” as well as the multitude of videos on YouTube.

For Playing NPC’s, see Chapter One, “Techniques of Terror,” in the Ravenloft Dungeon Master’s Guide p33-36.

And for collaboration with your players, read the DMG and John Wick’s Play Dirty, especially the Chapter on “The Living City.”