Espionage Games in Fate Core – Part 2

Last week, I talked about some of the great systems in the original d20 edition of the Spycraft RPG that allowed the GM to run streamlined versions of some of the key elements that appear in high-action espionage games. These include:

  • Physical Infiltration
  • Face-to-Face Infiltration
  • Electronic Infiltration (System Hacking)
  • Direct Assault
  • Interrogation
  • Seduction
  • Area Pursuits

Now I’m focusing on using those systems to inform how a GM might handle those types of adventure elements in a game using the Fate RPG.

In Fate, a GM can use the existing rules (including, in some cases, the Fate fractal) to implement these same kinds of streamlined activities without having to come up with whole new systems to cover the various actions that may come up. This week, I’m going to look at Physical Infiltration.

Physical Infiltration

As mentioned last week, Physical Infiltration covers the following:

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.

When running an espionage game in Fate, there is a likely possibility that not all characters will be suitable for such a stealthy insertion into an enemy facility. However, having one character go off on his or her own can bog down play. So how do you run such a sequence in Fate and keep everyone involved?

The Goals

First you need to determine the goal of the Physical Infiltration. Generally, a single Physical Infiltration should have a single goal; otherwise the infiltrator risks spreading their resources too thin and accomplishing nothing. In the examples below, the team should pick a single objective within the category.

For example, if the mission is to Gather Intel, the team should pick a particular piece of intel that they want to retrieve (e.g. the identity of key members), rather than all of the possible pieces of intel that might be available.

Here are some examples:

  • Gather Intel: This mission is just about gathering information. It could be the history of the organization, the identity of key members, their short-term or long-term goals, the location of key resources (including other bases), etc.
  • Steal a Physical Item: The infiltrator’s mission is to find the location of a particular item, steal it, and get out of the facility with it in their possession. This is different from gathering intel, in that they must also be able to carry the item and get it past any detectors designed to catch the removal of such things (e.g. an electronic asset tagging system).
  • Sabotage: This mission has the infiltrator damaging either a physical item or digital files. It could be as simple as planting a bomb on an item or a virus in a computer system, or as complicated as sabotaging it in such a way that the damage is unnoticeable and will only come up well after the item (or digital file) has been in use for some time (specified or not).

One additional element that needs to be determined is whether the Physical Infiltration needs to remain undetected after the main objective is complete. For example, if a mission requires that the spy plants a bomb on a prototype weapon that is being developed, can the explosion be used to help the spy leave the facility during the confusion? Or if the spy is stealing an experimental aircraft, does he or she need to get the aircraft out without being detected (which would require taking down the radar systems for the facility first)? In some cases, it may be important for the spy to remain undetected, such as if the spy has planted false files on a computer server so that the villain organization uses the wrong information in their plans.

The Challenge

In a typical Physical Infiltration, the security forces at the facility do not know about the infiltrator at the beginning of the contest, and so it begins as a Challenge against a passive opposition. The steps in the Physical Infiltration should make sense based on the objective, the location, and the security forces present.

There are some common elements, however, that will appear most often in typical Physical Infiltration missions:

  • Gaining Initial Access: The spy has to get into the facility somehow. This could involve sneaking past a guard post (Stealth), rappelling down the side of an immense dam (Athletics), bypassing a locked entry (Burglary), or anything that gets the spy into the base.
  • Reaching the Objective: In a quick, simple mission, this could be a single step. In more difficult or complicated missions, this could five (or more) steps, depending on the obstacles between the entrance and the objective. Obstacles that need to be bypassed include guard patrols, secured doors, intrusion detection measures (e.g. video cameras, laser tripwires or pressure-sensitive floors), physical effort (e.g. the need to climb up the side of a rocket or jump across a gap in a catwalk), or anything else the makes sense in the setting.
  • Completing the Objective: Depending on the mission goal, this could include accessing a computer system, planting a bomb, securing an item, etc.
  • Getting Out: Most missions should have a fairly quick way to egress once the objective is complete, but that still requires a bit of effort. For example, base jumping off the roof of the skyscraper, swimming though the outflow valve from a pool of water used for cooling, flying the experimental aircraft away from the base, etc. As noted above, the mission objective should specify if the person doing the Physical Infiltration needs to remain undetected during this step.

For example, the spy Steve Angler is infiltrating the facility of a villain organization that is based on a tanker ship anchored offshore. His objective is to find the main computer server and copy some key files, and then get out undetected (so the organization doesn’t know they’ve been compromised). The GM has set the difficulty of each of the steps at Good (+3).

First he has to get onto the tanker. He uses a diving scooter to get out to the ship under the surface of the water, but his first step in the challenge is getting up the side of the tanker so that he can enter the ship.

Step One: In this case, the GM decides that he needs to roll Athletics to climb up the side of the tanker with his hand-held suction cups. Unfortunately, Steve rolls a failure with his Athletics. Rather than abandon the mission at the first obstacle, he decides to succeed with a cost, and the GM tells him that his bag of infiltration equipment slips off his shoulder and falls back into the water. Though the sound doesn’t alert any guards, the GM takes a boost “Lost my equipment” reflecting that Steve doesn’t have all the tools he thinks he might need. On the other hand, Steve makes it onto the ship and into cover.

Step Two: The GM has decided that it will take two steps to reach the room with the server. First, Steve has to dodge guard patrols to get down belowdecks to the level where the server room is located. He rolls his Stealth skill and succeeds with style. He takes a boost “Extra time” reflecting that the guards just passed by this section and won’t be back for a while.

Step Three: Steve now has to break into the secured server room. The GM uses the boost “Lost my equipment” to bump up the difficulty to Superb (+5). Steve rolls and gets 4, but uses his own boost “Extra time” to bump that up to 6 and succeeds in hot-wiring the door controls and gets in.

Step Four: Steve now accesses the computer system and tries to find the files he needs. He rolls Investigate and succeeds, and quickly makes a copy of the files.

Step Five: Now that the mission objective has been completed, Steve needs to get off the boat. Not wanting to drag the mission out any longer than necessary, the GM tells Steve to make one final Stealth check to get back up to the deck and over the side without being spotted. Steve successfully makes his Stealth check and slips back into the water undetected. The mission is a success.

How Stealthy?

Obviously, the initial elements of a Physical Infiltration almost always require some element of stealth. This type of mission hinges on getting to the objective without getting caught. However, if the objective of the mission is one that is going to be obvious (like blowing up the main generator), it might not matter if the infiltrator leaves a trail of bodies behind.

Generally, once a combat breaks out, the situation changes from a Challenge to a Conflict. However, in some cases this may slow down the game too much—remember, the point of this is to streamline the mission as the other characters are likely not participating.

So how do you replicate the lone infiltrator, picking off guards with a silenced pistol or razor-sharp knife while he or she moves toward the objective? This is where the GM can use nameless NPCs as an obstacle rather than an opponent (see page 217 of the Fate Core rulebook). The spy can use his or her Fight skill to get past the obstacle just like any other step in a challenge.

When Things Go Wrong

So what happens when the dice go against the PC, they run out of fate points, and it seems like the mission is a bust? Well, sometimes those are the breaks.

Just like any roll in Fate, if you fail a roll “you don’t get what you want, you get what you want at a serious cost, or you suffer some negative mechanical consequence.” It is up to the GM to determine the appropriate cost to allow the mission to move forward.

My opinion is that a single failed roll shouldn’t wreck the entire mission. There are countless ways to allow the mission to proceed while making the spy feel that things have gone off the rails.

In a mission where remaining undetected isn’t necessarily a key part of the objective, the easiest solution is to state that the spy has been detected. If using Stealth, then they were spotted (either directly or through electronic means). If using Fight, the guard shouted out a warning before the spy took him/her out. If using Burglary, the spy bypassed the lock but caused an alert. You get the idea.

If remaining undetected is a key element of the mission, then the costs for a single failure should be different. As in my example above, Steve Angler’s initial failure meant he lost all his equipment. Alternately, perhaps the spy gets injured if they are doing something physical or that carries a risk of injury (e.g. pulls a muscle, gets an electrical shock, etc.).

Another option is to have a failure add a step to the Challenge, and have that step be more difficult than the others. For example, a spy is using Investigate to find a document that is supposed to be in the villain’s office. However, he rolls a failure and there is nothing obvious that the GM can do with that. So the GM tells the spy that he or she discovers a safe, and since the document isn’t in the desk where it was expected to be, perhaps it’s in the safe. But if the steps in the Challenge so far have been set at Good (+3) difficulty, getting into the safe might be Great (+4) or Superb (+5).

As always when running Fate Core, use the story to determine the appropriate mechanical response.

Next week, I’ll cover 2-3 more of these systems for espionage action. In the meantime, please share your own experiences using Fate Core to run espionage games or comment on the system above.

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