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


Arm yourself because no one else here will save youAs 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.

Wick takes what made Houses fun and adds Bond to the mix

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

Michael Wolf's Warrior, Rogue & Mage shaken, not stirred

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.

8 Responses to “You Only Live Twice: Espionage RPG’s and Gaps in the Genre”

  1. Really quality post, cherie. Good insights on the genre.

    I love the idea of a Pendulum-implementation for a past-present spy thriller. Could be really cool, and easy enough to write via Time-Pendulum!

    Savage Worlds is a great little system for Pendulum-style games, simply because its easy to latch onto and easy to ‘grok’. But, you’re correct on its over-simplicity. If you’re looking to spend more time in the spy-genre, SW has some gaps, just as you (quite insightfully) list. The idea of additional, gambling-based mechanics to represent various spy skills: hacking, sneaking, interrogating, etc is really quality–a quick hand of Blackjack could make for a fantastic way to represent a “Before I kill you, Mr. Bond…” monologue.

    Oooh! I have it! For hacking…have you ever played a game called Mastermind? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastermind_(board_game)

    It’d be perfect!!!

  2. edige23 says:

    Two other resources to consider- take a look at Leverage for inspiration and I’d also recommend Oceans, which is free full rpg available from http://errantgame.blogspot.com/. You’ve got a ton of good ideas here- makes me really want to start thinking about a spy game. Pelgrane’s doing a take on espionage using Gumshoe which will incorporate the supernatural, but I’m just curious about how they apply the system.

  3. Lugh says:

    You should really check out Leverage. It has some really neat systems in it, and is all about running heists and cons.

    Spycraft 1.0 had extensive systems for duplicating gambling in your game (in the African Alliance sourcebook). IMHO, while nifty, they needlessly bogged down the game. I’m here to play the RPG, not baccarat.

    The dramatic conflicts that you found in Spycraft 2.0 can be used for a lot of the pieces you mentioned above. You can easily use them to duplicate gambling, sneaking, or any other complex task that involves competition and multiple checks. You just need to work out what a lead means (a certain percentage of your stake for gambling, locations achieved vs. guards alerted for sneaking). And, you need to get some ideas for maneuvers. Just renaming the existing ones to do similar effects gets you about 80% of the way there. It’s an incredibly useful and flexible mechanic.

    I know that Spycraft 1.0 had some suggestions for ways to make location matter. I think Spycraft 2.0 does as well. They might be tricky to find, as they are likely buried in the miscellanea of the GM section.

  4. The trick I’ve found with any stealth subsystem is to find a way to measure two spectra at once:

    1) How close am I to my goal?
    2) How aware are the “guards” of my presence?

    I’ve found that the One-Roll Engine (REIGN, Wild Talents, etc) is handy for this, in that it provides two dimensions of results with each roll of the dice. Width equals the number of “steps” you advance. Compare height to the Sense of the guards to see if you avoid tripping any alerts.

    Seconding the recommendations for Leverage. It also answers the above question (with Complications being guards twigged to your presence) and is a fun system to boot.

  5. carl says:

    I was just about to research on spy games and like you looking at both Spycraft and Savage Worlds. SW is too bare but I still like the simplicity of it. I am working on a Spycraft conversion to SW now, Most probably taking the gadgets and social mechanics.

  6. Kristia says:

    Out of curiosity, have you checked out Reality Blurs’ Agents of Oblivion since you wrote this post? It looks like this was posted about a month before the PDF was released.

  7. Doc Rotwang! says:

    …and I’m WAAAAY late to this party, but I just discovered this blog, and this post in particular, yesterday evening. But I thought of something to do about making location matter.

    Fate Aspects.

    Look, those things are great for…well, for everything, really. If you’re unfamiliar with fate, Aspects are a handle for giving narrative and mechanical weight to anything you want, even things you wouldn’t think to. Location is one of those things; so are theme and mood.

    You see where I’m going with this?

  8. Keith says:

    Barbarians of Lemuria has a variant called Dogs of W.A.R. That is a set in the 70s and 80s — Mercenary, Thief, Spy game. If you have tried BoL you know it is a light but fun system. I am going to try my hand at some Bond/Bourne type Spy adventures and see how the players like it.

    This is a return for me since I use to run Top Secret and Top Secret SI.


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