Action-Espionage in RPGs

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve seen every James Bond movie ever made. Some I’ve watched over and over, and others (anything with Timothy Dalton) I’ve only seen once. I know they are not real espionage movies—they’re action movies with a thin veneer of espionage trappings sprinkled over them…sometimes.

But I’m okay with that. When I want real espionage, I read something from Le Carré, Forsyth and others. Sometimes, though, I don’t want real espionage. I want action-espionage.

More recently, I’ve watched the last few Mission Impossible movies. Now, I hated the first MI movie—I thought it took what was best about the original Mission Impossible television show and ripped it out, and then created a crappy James Bond copy. I heard enough about MI:2 that I knew I should avoid it because I was guaranteed to be annoyed and disappointed.

But then some people I trust told me that MI:3, MI: Ghost Protocol, and MI: Rogue Nation were all decent action movies and that I’d probably enjoy them. And they were right.

Which, of course, brings me to roleplaying games.

Espionage or action-espionage?

Real espionage is hard to do in an RPG. This is because real espionage doesn’t actually have much action in it. It involved meticulous research, long planning, endless surveillance, and other elements that don’t really translate to a fun and exciting time at the table.

Which is why most espionage RPGs add other elements to increase the fun factor. Night’s Black Agents, for example, is a fantastic game with a system (Gumshoe) that really emulates espionage in fiction in both book and film. But NBA is about operatives against vampires. The original setting for the first edition of the Spycraft RPG (Shadowforce Archer) included psychic powers and magic. Conspiracy X has aliens.

But that’s okay. A good RPG needs a hook, something special for players to grab onto so that the game doesn’t flounder. Vampires and aliens give the players something to focus on right from the beginning. There’s a conspiracy out there, and it’s run by creatures that aren’t human, and your job is to stop them. It’s pretty easy to get a campaign going quickly with such a solid premise.

But the James Bond movies and the Mission Impossible movies don’t include any of those elements. There are no vampires, or aliens, or psychic powers in either of those franchises, and yet they are fun and exciting to watch.

So how do we do that in an RPG?

What system?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last few months, as I prepare to run an action-espionage game for some friends. I admit I’ve had a hell of a time deciding on what system to use for this campaign. My initial thought was to use Fate Core, but I don’t think it’s the right system for my players.

I also have the original James Bond 007 RPG published back in the 80’s by Victory Games. There are some things I really like about this game—it stands up very well despite its age—but there are some elements that don’t work for me.

I considered the first edition of Spycraft, but classes and levels are not something I want to use for this campaign. I don’t feel that such a system captures the feel of an actual action-espionage book or movie.

Night’s Black Agents, while an amazing game that I absolutely love, is a bit too complicated for some of my early-teen players. I expect that managing the ability pools will cause some issues.

I also looked at Mythras (including some of the elements from Luther Arkwright), and was very close to picking this as the system to use for the campaign, but the hit locations and the overall deadliness didn’t match what I wanted.

Feng Shui 2nd Edition is almost perfect for what I want. It’s a game designed to emulate Hong Kong action movies, and most of the elements that work well in Feng Shui translate over perfectly to the action-espionage movies that inspire this campaign. My main problem with this choice is that I’d need to make some additional archetypes to ensure that the key character types are covered, since there is only a single “Spy” archetype in the game. I can rename a couple of archetypes and switch out a schtick or two, but I’ll probably have to create a couple of scratch. Still, right now it’s probably the best choice for what I want to do.

The only other option is to go full narrative and use HeroQuest 2E. If you’ve read this blog, you know I’m a big fan of HeroQuest. My only problem, as I mentioned in last week’s post, is that I’d have to create the entire genre pack for this campaign because HeroQuest has no support for settings other than Glorantha, besides a few pages in the back of the HQ2 rule book. And I’m not sure if I can commit the time to develop this for the players without seriously delaying the campaign (which I’m getting very eager to get off the ground).

The key elements

So what are the key elements from the James Bond and Mission Impossible movies that I want to highlight in my action-espionage campaign?

  • Plots are usually fairly simple: Hugo Drax plans to wipe out all human life on the planet with a specially-developed nerve toxin, which he will drop onto the planet from his secret space station. Or a mole within the IMF has arranged for an arms dealer to acquire a secret weapon to sell to a terrorist group, so that the IMF has a reason to launch a pre-emptive strike. The overall plot of the mission should be easy to summarize in a sentence or two.
  • The protagonists (i.e. the player characters) aren’t worried about dying from a stray gunshot. They can face overwhelming opposition and be forced to retreat, or even get surrounded and captured, but they rarely get actually shot. Injuries tend to be in the form of beatings, but that’s about it.
  • The planning of operations is left in the background. Almost no time is spent in the planning phase because a) it slows down the pace of the game to a crawl, and b) it becomes repetitive once the operation begins. The players should have a quick way of outlining an objective, grabbing some equipment, and then heading out into the field.
  • The player characters are highly skilled from the start of the campaign. This is not like those old zero-to-hero fantasy campaigns. In Casino Royale, you get to see James Bond as a pre-007 agent in the opening sequence, in order to show how he skillfully earned his double-o rank. But that’s about it.
  • Characters have an overall focus area in which they are the “best” on the team, but all the agents are skilled in multiple areas. Ethan Hunt, Luther Stickell, and Zhen Lei can all drive vehicles under stressful conditions and they all know how guns work. But when you need someone to hack into a computer system, Stickell is the best one for the job.
  • Each mission should have opportunities for sneaking into a location, for chases, for gunfights, for close combat, and the possibility use special tricks, like hacking, disguises, etc.
  • Each scene should result in the player characters receiving obvious clues that lead them to one or more other scenes that advance the mission. Red herrings should be kept to an absolute minimum (with the very occasional exception for those that are a key part of the villain’s plans).
  • The “good guys” and the “bad guys” should generally be fairly obvious (with the very occasional double-agent). The players should feel they are working on the side of the heroes and that they are making the world safer/better. Shades of grey don’t really fit this campaign.
  • Action (including combat) should be fast and easy to adjudicate. Complicated systems that slow down the resolution are not appropriate.

I think that if I can hit these major points, then the campaign will really feel like something out of a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. A few of these are the result of the system I choose to use, and the rest influence how I will design the missions. It will be important not to become too repetitive—by that I mean that a car chase on a highway in one mission might be replaced by a chase on skis in the Alps, or a motorcycle chase through crowded streets, or something else. It’s still a chase, but it feels different because of the unique elements involved.

The James Bond movies are a great example of this. James Bond has been involved in a great number of car chases throughout his 24 (Eon) films, but they often have elements that give them a unique flavor. The car chase in Goldfinger is a different sequence than the one in The Spy Who Loved Me. And that’s not counting all the chases on skis, or in boats, or on foot, or while falling out of a plane, etc.

Conclusion

Emulating a particular media property requires some effort to get right. The system plays a big part in this, but it’s important to remember that the GM has a major role to play in giving the players some direction and in setting boundaries. An action-espionage campaign, for example, won’t feel like the Mission Impossible movies if the GM keeps coming up with complicated and convoluted plots that contain multiple double- and triple-crosses and where everyone walks the fine line between hero and villain.

Have you ever played a campaign that was based on a single movie or movie series? How did the system and the GM help (or hinder) that emulation? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

4 thoughts on “Action-Espionage in RPGs

  1. Action-Espionage (or more typically, spy-fi) always manage to creep into anything I run, whether its Roman fantasy, sci-fi, 30s pulp, or Victorian “steampunk” (gah! I hate that word!) I really cut my teeth as a GM running Victory’s James Bond RPG, and have been putting out fan stuff for it online for two decades. It was my go-to system for anything modern or slightly futuristic for a long time. I’d go with that. Nothing wrong with a “dead system”, although Fate or Cortex would handle it well, too.

  2. […] Action-Espionage in RPGs @ Inside the Tower of Dust – Although I’ve run games that have elements of action-espionage in them, I have not played a game that focused on this theme.  It’s interesting to read some thoughts on running a whole game on this theme and particularly on how the author chose an appropriate system to use.  I’m familiar with some of the systems discussed, but others are new to me.  A good read with some thoughts to consider for my own games. […]

  3. Hi. I dunno if you’re looking for recommendations here, but my choice for an action game, and indeed any adaptation of an IP for the gaming table, will usually be Fate Core. Granted, I haven’t yet been able to play Hero Quest (I would like to), but Fare Core has a lot of modular pieces that you can add or subtract to better emulate your chosen genre. As well, Aspects do anything you need them to do, including stand in as Clues. You may enjoy this blog post I wrote about Clues as Fate Apects since you specifically called out making Clues obvious as a game design goal.

    https://tellingstoriestogether.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/clues-as-fate-aspects/

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