Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Campaign Frame Thinking: Spyworlds (Part One)

I'm a fan of espionage movies and stories, of all stripes. I grew up reading LeCarre in grade school and Ian Fleming in middle school. My sense of what rpgs could do opened up when I first got a hold of Top Secret. I'd played some other things, but TS was the first time I really started to build an imaginary world for play. From there I went on to superheroes, fantasy, and eventually back to spy games when James Bond came out. People wax nostalgic about early D&D modules, but for me it was the Q-Manual and Operation: Orient Express that really stand out in my memory.

At some point I'd like to run a good espionage game which has something of the paranoia of the Cold War era, the procedural elements of a good investigation, and the action chases of a superspy thriller. Yes, I want all of that in a single game. I'll admit I'm a little rusty on the genre- with Bourne, the first season of Chuck, and the newest James Bond films as my only recent touchstones. I missed most of Alias, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, anything technothriller, RED, only saw the first Mission Impossible movie, etc. I want something that bottles most of that lightning.

Too Many Cooks
One problem is that a spy game has to be able to handle the idea of a group-- rather than of individual super agents. In that sense, it works best with something like the old Mission Impossible series, rather than the newer version. Seemingly ensemble works like Alias or even Archer has central PCs and some NPCs along for the ride. I will say I can imagine a Fiasco playset built on the premises of the Archer cartoon (someone get on that now...). You have a couple of options for approaching that, with the most classic version being a simple caper operation: think The Italian Job. However I like the idea of the group as a well-oiled machine carrying out perhaps the preliminary work for an operation in which the main Agent gets inserted. There's a version of a Witless Minion campaign I can imagine has the players as desk jockeys and technical people making sure that the main character ends up looking flawless in the operation: you can have that NPC more or less sympathetic depending on how much humor you want in the game.

Fixing Loose Ends
I think more interesting, and something I've played with in the past, is the idea of agents who go in to do the follow up work after a mission, successful or not. They tie up all of the loose ends, pay off local authorities to keep things quiet, arrange to smuggle contacts out of the country. They're also literal cleaners-- taking apart safehouses, sanitizing an agent's hotel room, cleaning up the scene of a brutal gunfight. They're like CSI in reverse. How to keep things under wraps and avoid detection would be the main drive of the plots- as would finding themselves caught in an operation which hasn't quite closed. I used this format with a Conspiracy X convention scenario. The PCs have been sent in after a first-tier agent teams says they've finished up their op and have a witness who needs to be memory wiped. They arrive to find the team missing and one agent gone rogue and have to track back from there. The concept works especially well in ConX which has the cool idea of Pulling Strings and those resources.

Further Afield
While that cleaner set up works for conventional situations, it has more appeal in even more excessive ones. A standard operational game that suddenly goes off the rails could be the introduction to a Delta Green, Conspiracy X, Esoterrorists or straight Call of Cthulhu game. Perhaps in the sanitizing process they come across even more awful things, horrors man was not meant to clean up. They then try to contact their secret agency, only to find out they've been left out in the cold. Given the toolbox provided by the new Hunter the Vigil rpg, I can imagine that being a great jumping off point for a certain kind of band. Another version of this has the players on clean-up duty in a world of supernatural espionage and Conspiracies-- so think GURPS Cabal, Men in Black or even the forthcoming Night's Black Agents (by Ken Hite, for Gumshoe). Here the PCs have to clean up the mess from supernatural events, hide an ongoing war between psychics and the government or keep down the spontaneous summoning of demons from the internet. We get a little far off the espionage track there but it still fits.

Defining the Spy Game?
It does begin to raise the question about what defines a Spy or Espionage game. What makes it different from your standard detective game, procedural game, or pulp action game? It shares many of those base elements-- investigation, chases, social engineering, conspiracies, gritty heroes. Again, though that depends on the flavor of the spy genre being invoked-- there's a world of difference between James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan and George Smiley. I'd honestly say its a cosmetic consideration- affecting the scope and scale of the game. The classic spy game has a greater range of locations, has a better support system for the players, has grander scale issues and consequences. But again I'm speaking of “Spy” games with a capital “S”. I think to really do justice to this kind of game and get the players involved the GM would have to buy heavily into those tropes, rather than presenting a revisionist take on them. For example, I love the structural ideas of Global Frequency by Warren Ellis (interestingly the same guy who brought us the recent RED). You have missions with experts assembled specific to each mission. It feels like a spy game to me or at least a kind of technothriller. I'm not sure how you do that game and still manage to give the players a continuing narrative focus, i.e. character. You could give them a stable of characters, but then they don't necessarily build an attachment. On the other hand there could be PCs and they select from a load-out of NPCs to take with them. I assume, actually, that's how the never produced TV series of Global Frequency would have worked-- audience identification with key characters being as important as PC attachment.

But I've spun a little off track in my ruminations. I'm going to continue this in my next post.


  1. I don't know if I could ever play a spy based game. Espionage never really has been one of my interests.

  2. LoneIslander, I think you'd be surprised. "Espionage" leaks into lots of modern genres. All these stories started off as 'spy' stories...

    Enter The Dragon. Bruce Lee is convinced to enter by "British Intelligence."

    The A-Team. Global Frequency. Charlie's Angels. Doc Savage. Rocketeer. The Saint. The Equalizer. Kill Bill. All stories based on a small network of freelance spy/mercenaries.

    Predator. Alias. The Bourne trilogy. La Femme Nikita. 24. The Avengers (UK TV series). The Avengers (superhero team). The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It's a very flexible foundation to start from.

  3. Lowell, from a practical level, I'd start with asking where the PCs fit in when the campaign starts.

    Who do they trust? (I assume they can trust each other).

    Who do they distrust? (Starts off uncertain, they might learn to trust or oppose them later).

    Who are their enemies?

    Once you build that skeleton, your campaign should be pretty easy to hang off of it. Are they fighting against foreign enemies? Cleaning up a corrupt domestic government? Can they trust their own bosses?

  4. I think it can be done. You need a smaller group (under 5), obvious opposing forces, and a team atmosphere. If you are looking for something different, Hot War or Cold City might work for you.

  5. I love the idea of an espionage game. Some of the issues you mentioned have cropped up in our World of Darkness chronicle. I'm going to print out this post for further reading. :)

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