Espionage Games in Fate

Back in 2002, AEG released the Spycraft RPG, an espionage-oriented game that captured my interest (and dollars). It was based off the d20 system engine, and was pretty crunch-heavy, but it was a great base from which to do games about dashing superspies.

In 2005, the second edition of the game was released. It tried to be a more comprehensive game—not just focused on espionage—and it suffered from mechanical issues and over-complication of many elements that had been smooth and fun in the original edition.

Eventually, AEG dropped the game, and the license was picked up by Crafty Games, made up of some of the original authors. Unfortunately, their Spycraft-related releases were anemic—they focused on a fantasy version of the system and a licensed Mistborn game instead—and Spycraft died a slow, lingering death.

But there were some great ideas in that first edition, ideas that would work really well with other games that do a better job emulating that high-octane action.

And that’s where the Fate RPG comes in. I’ve written about Fate before and even have a superhero adventure, This Vision of Darkness, available on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. Fate works well for games with a lot of action, where spies are larger than life. Think James Bond and Jason Bourne and you get the idea.

In the various class guides, Spycraft presented a series of “streamlined” systems for rapidly playing out elements of espionage adventures in order to not bog down play and get to the most exciting and important parts of the mission.

These systems included:

  • Streamlined Assault
  • Streamlined Physical Infiltration
  • Streamlined Face-to-Face Infiltration
  • Area Pursuits

There was a promised system for hacking in one of the guides, but it never appeared.

In the second edition of Spycraft, these were bundled into an overall system called Dramatic Conflicts. As with much of Spycraft 2.0, it was overly complicated for what it did.

But the core idea was sound, and we used a (more streamlined) variation of these rules in our own games at the time. Looking back at those rules recently reminded me of the Fate fractal and how many of these systems could be represented in a Fate Core game.

The basic idea is that the players should be able to dial in or out to achieve the right amount of focus they need to keep the game moving. For example, when you a single character hack into a system to retrieve information, or another spy infiltrate a building by crawling through ventilation ducts and bypassing laser tripwires, it can become boring for the other players as one element of the game dominates.

But the idea behind these “streamlined” systems in the original Spycraft game was so that you could use just the “right” amount of focus for the situation at hand.

So what do these systems do?

Direct Assault: Some of the richer and more powerful villains James Bond has fought have been able to field veritable armies of minions. Take the battle inside the fake tanker in The Spy Who Loved Me—there are dozens of combatants on each side all firing weapons, taking cover, shouting orders, falling into the water, and dying by the literal boatload.

Physical Infiltration: Dressed in a black body-suit and wearing night-vision goggles, the spy crawls through the air ducts and sneaks by the armed guards, bypassing security systems and video cameras. Once the spy retrieves the item or plants the transmitter, he fades back into the shadows and leaves as quietly as he entered, with no one the wiser.

Face-to-Face Infiltration: It takes an unflappable demeanor and the ability to completely assume another’s identity to infiltrate a guarded location by posing as someone who belongs there. This is no shadowy infiltration—the spy talks to the guards and walks around right in front of them. They may even deal directly with the main villain and have to maintain their cover for weeks before they are in the perfect position to execute their mission.

System Hacking: Unlike the other two infiltrations, a hacker is usually located somewhere completely off site and performs their tasks in relative safety. The computer expert insinuates herself into a network and gathers data, corrupts files, plants evidence, or sets up back doors for later easy access.

Interrogation: When a character gets captured by the villain’s organization, or when the PCs capture one of the villain’s minions, there is usually race to get intel from the prisoner while it still has value. This is a race against time, pitting the skill of the interrogator against the willpower of the prisoner. Villains may even resort to torture, though of course no player character would ever consider such tactics.

Seduction: The very opposite of the previous entry, seduction is used to gain intel by convincing the target to part with it by giving—or promising to give—him or her exactly what they want. Similar in some ways to interrogation, the seducer must rely on the ability to understand and play to the desires of the target.

Area Pursuits: Also known as a manhunt, the team conducts an operation to find a target that they know is in a specific area. They may use local police, a network of informants, or a small team on the street to find their prey depending on their location and the resources at their disposal. Regardless of the method, time is usually of the essence as once the target escapes the area he or she could potentially disappear.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll examine each of these elements and discuss how the Fate fractal can be used to simulate the action and keep the game moving no matter whether the PCs are trying to accomplish their goal over the next 20 minutes or the next six months.

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