HeroQuest RPG: Not Just for Glorantha

One of my favourite RPGs is HeroQuest, currently published by Chaosium. This game was originally published as Hero Wars, as the HeroQuest name was under trademark with Milton Bradley for their entirely unrelated board game. When MB let the HeroQuest trademark lapse, Greg Stafford grabbed it and the second (and current) edition of the RPG was published under that name.

While Hero Wars was intricately tied to the Glorantha world setting, the HeroQuest second edition core rules were published with the intent to be used as a universal system RPG campaigns. There was a single chapter at the end of the book titled “Gaming in Glorantha” but the rest of the rules were designed around using any genre or setting.

Those familiar with both games agree that HeroQuest shares some similarities with the Fate RPG system, though with some notable differences. The main point of HeroQuest is that characters have traits that they use to solve problems in the game, but those traits are not necessarily skills as they appear in most other RPGs. A trait could be something like “Loyalty to my King” or “Get by on my looks” or they could have more traditional skill-like names like “Sword fighting” or “Ride horse.”

The key difference between HeroQuest and most other games is that the rating in the trait does not indicate how good you are at doing whatever it is that is covered by the trait. Rather, the number represents how well you can use it to succeed in your goals. It can be a subtle difference at times, but it’s an important one.

A character could have a trait “Legendary swordsman” but not have a particularly high rating for that trait. Having an average rating doesn’t mean the character isn’t a legendary swordsman, or that he doesn’t have much skill with his sword. What it means is that this character isn’t very good at using his legendary sword-fighting ability to get what he wants. Say, for example, the player is trying to intimidate a bunch of thugs to leave without a fight, and he decides to use his “Legendary swordsman” trait. If he fails the test, it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t intimidating, or that he’s not really “legendary.” Rather, it more likely means that the thugs decide that, since there are a bunch of them, they could make a name for themselves if they actually kill this legendary swordsman.

But the two things I love about HeroQuest the most are a) how you resolve conflicts, and b) how you mechanically represent opponents, hazards, and obstacles.

Conflict Resolution

Unlike many roleplaying games, HeroQuest doesn’t treat combat any different than another other kind of challenge. The exact same rules are used for climbing a mountain, arguing a legal case in court, seducing a love interest, fighting a duel, commanding an army, or fixing a car.

These challenges are represented by either Simple Contests or Extended Contests.

Simple Contests are used when you want to play out a challenge of some sort, but you don’t want it to take a long time. These are minor “beats” in a story, like bluffing your way past the bouncer at a club in order to gain access, or battling a couple of minions. These contests come down to a single roll by the player, compared to a single roll by the GM, and then comparing results on a chart to determine the outcome. A Simple Contest can take less than a minute to resolve.

Extended Contests are really just a handful of Simple Contests that result in Resolution Points for one side or the other. The first side to get 5 points wins the contest. Extended Contests are used for more dramatic conflicts, where the players decide they want to focus on this particular challenge because it carries a good deal of dramatic weight. This type of contest is used when Inigo Montoya finally confronts the six-fingered man who killed his father, or when Luke Skywalker participates in the attack on the Death Star.

But no matter which type of contest is used, they are easy to run, take little time to play out, and allow the game to keep flowing.

Opposition and Difficulties

The other major thing I love about HeroQuest is that all opposition—whether it’s the mountain that the character is trying to climb, the prosecutor he is facing across the courtroom, the love interest he is trying to seduce, the villain he is dueling, the opposing army he is facing, or the damage to the car he is trying to repair—is all represented by a single number.

There are no long, draw-out stat blocks, no calculations of derived values, and no hit points to track. At most, the GM may note a couple of ways the opposition is strong, and a couple of ways the opposition is weak. But other than that, the difficulty of the opposition is based on a single number representing how hard it is to overcome.

For example, let’s say the base difficulty for newly-staring characters is 14. A moderate challenge will use the base difficulty of 14, a high difficulty with use 20, a very high difficulty will use 23, and a low difficulty will use 8.

Now I could simply use those numbers to represent any opposition. If I feel that climbing the mountain should be hard, I could set the difficulty at 20. If I feel that taking out a couple of guards should be easy, I could set the difficulty at 8. These are the numbers that are used by the GM in the Simple and Extended Contests I mentioned above.

If I really want to get detailed, I could list a couple of noteworthy things about the opposition. For example, I could list the duelist as follows:

Duelist: Use High difficulty for fencing and gaining his trust; use Low difficulty for trying to make him angry; Use Moderate difficulty for everything else.

That’s all I need mechanically to run this NPC.

So Where Can I Use It?

Just like the early editions of RuneQuest, the HeroQuest game was initially tied to the world of Glorantha, an extremely detailed setting with ubiquitous magic, a bronze age feel, and a lots of different tribal cultures.

But Glorantha is not for everyone. I’ve read a moderate amount of the setting information available over the years, and Glorantha has never captured my interest or imagination. There is nothing I’ve ever read that made me sit up and think “I’d love to use that in a game.”

And that’s okay, because many people do love the Glorantha setting, and there are new products being produced for it regularly. In fact, Chaosium also publishes a version of the Heroquest rules that fully integrates it into the Glorantha setting (named, appropriately enough, HeroQuest: Glorantha).

But what if you’re like me and don’t have any interest in Glorantha. What else can HeroQuest do?

The answer is “pretty much everything.” As the examples I used above show, HeroQuest is suitable for both The Princess Bride and Star Wars. In fact, it’s trivially easy to use HeroQuest for just about any RPG setting, either published or home-brewed.

Obviously, if you want to use a great universal system for a game like the James Bond movies, you’d be better served with the generic HeroQuest rule book, rather than the one written specifically for Glorantha. But that book has everything you need to run a game in that setting.

Well, maybe not everything. You still need appropriate information on the setting itself, because it’s important that all the players are on the same page when playing the game. And that’s something that no one has really published for HeroQuest.

There’s a great chapter in the core rule book called “Creating Genre Packs” that talks about how to adapt the game to various genres and settings. But nothing in a Genre Pack changes any of the rules. Rather, as the book itself explains, a Genre Pack “is an information kit for your players, telling them what sort of world they’ll be operating in, what they can expect to be doing in it, and what extraordinary abilities (if any) they can use to accomplish those aims.”

Conclusion

All of which brings me to my next focus on this blog over the next few weeks. I’m going to talk about using HeroQuest to run various kinds of games. I’ve already talked about using Fate Core for superheroes and action-espionage, and HeroQuest is great for both of those settings as well. But it is also great for many other settings, and putting together a genre pack, while fairly easy, is something that not everyone wants to do themselves.

So over the next few blog posts, I’ll put together a few different genre packs and talk about how HeroQuest can be used for those kinds of games, and what kind of experience you can get out of it.

See you next week.

How to Choose a Game

I’m about to start running a new RPG campaign with some friends, and I’ve been thinking about what game I want to run. I admit I’m a bit of a collector, and so have ended up with more games in my collection than I’ll ever have time to play. But I also prefer to do campaigns rather than dozens of one-shots, and of course many games work much better in campaign play as the players get to explore the setting and their characters.

Because I want this game to be a success, it’s important I take into consideration all the factors that may influence the course of the campaign. So I’m going to outline my thought process here in the hope that it may be of some use to others in determining the best game to play with their own groups.

Over the 35 years that I’ve been playing games, I’ve run a huge number of fantasy games. Dungeons & Dragons was the first, but I’ve bought and run every edition since then except the current one (I don’t feel it does anything special that a previous edition didn’t already do as well or better). But I’ve also run RuneQuest, HeroQuest, Ars Magica, Pendragon, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Legends of Anglerre, Atlantis: The Second Age, and others.

This time, however, some of the players are already in a Pathfinder game (playing through Rise of the Runelords), and I really feel like doing something different. There are some limitations, though, that I have to keep in mind. We’re only going to be playing once a month, and some of the players are fairly inexperienced. Plus, a couple of them are only 13 years old.

Due to the time limitations, I’ve decided a game heavy with recurring NPCs and deep relationship maps is probably not the best fit. Playing once a month means that a conversation you had yesterday in-game is at least three weeks old by the next session and you’re trying to remember what was said. It means that everyone has to take copious notes about who is who, what the NPCs want, believe, and dislike, and who belongs with which faction. Since I’m looking to run a lighter, more action-oriented game, I don’t want this to feel like work with all that note-taking.

I’ve already mentioned how I’ve run many fantasy games in the past and feel like taking a break from that genre. One of the most important elements of a successful campaign is that the GM is enthusiastic about running it. When I’m running a game and my heart isn’t in it, then it starts to feel like work. And since my leisure time is important to me, the last thing I want to do is spend it on something that brings me no joy.

The age of some of my players is a factor to consider as well. With two 13-year-olds joining the adults in this game, I’m going to avoid certain types of games. Body Horror is inappropriate, as are other settings built around more mature themes. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stick to running something like Toon or Cartoon Action Hour. But it does mean that some games, like Vampire, are going to be much tougher to run without extreme care.

The rules I choose to use are a big factor, of course. If I’m looking for a light game with lots of action including cool stunts, I’m not going to use something like Pathfinder or the Hero System. The rules both encourage and discourage certain types of actions. If you use a system that heavily penalizes the taking of risks, then the players are going to approach situations slowly and with great care. If you want a fast-paced game, a system that takes 45 minutes to play out a single round of combat is not going to give you the experience you want.

And, finally, the setting is the last element. To me, this is the “meat” of the game. A cool, evocative setting can inspire the players and bring everyone’s imagination to life. It’s what drives the adventures and provides those opportunities for memorable moments within the game. One of my considerations is that the adults are all professionals with busy lives. They don’t have time to read the rulebook or memorize a ton of information about the setting. I need something that can be described in broad strokes and that isn’t so alien that it makes it difficult for the players to imagine what it’s actually like to be there.

My Options

My two major options that I’m leaning towards are a) some kind of modern high-action espionage game (e.g. the Mission Impossible movies, James Bond, John Wick, etc.) and b) some kind of game in space (e.g. the Firefly television show, Star Wars, etc.).

For the first, I’ve recently done some posts on using Fate Core to play espionage games. This is very attractive to me—I’ve loved the Shadowforce Archer setting since it was first published and I still have all the books. Fate is a great system for high action and it’s super-easy to learn.

For the second, I’ve got a couple of options. First is Classic Traveller, specifically the 1977 version before the Third Imperium became the default setting for the game. In fact, I even put together my own sector of space a couple of months ago and I’ve gotten some great feedback on it. This setting interests me because it’s one I created myself and I understand it better than any setting I might buy and read by someone else. I figure this game would be more in the vein of the Firefly television show—a small crew trying to make ends meet while getting involved with criminal elements, government factions, and other strangeness.

My other sci-fi option is Mindjammer, a setting originally written for Starblazer Adventures (using an earlier iteration of Fate), but also updated to Fate Core. I’ve got both the original and the newer version. This is space opera at its finest. It’s got various elements that I can choose to focus on or completely ignore (like transhumanism), and the setting is great. The other nice thing about Mindjammer is that all the work is done for me.

I will be happy to run any of these three games. So now I’m going to do something very important, which is present these options to my players and see what grabs them. Because, while it is very important for the GM to be enthusiastic about the game, it’s also vital for the players to be enthusiastic as well. I could simply declare “I’m running Mindjammer” but if my players don’t find that idea interesting then the game is not going to be successful.

Rejected Ideas

There were other games that I strongly considered but ultimately discarded in bringing it down to these three options.

Shadowrun: I love the setting, but the rules have always made the game actively not-fun for me, regardless of edition. I think of what the game could be if it had decent rules that didn’t work directly against the players, and it’s a shame that it is what it is. But even though I could convert it over to a better system, the setting is not one that is easy for a brand new player to grok without reading a bunch of material about it.

Star Wars: On the one hand, the Star Wars setting is super-easy for gaming. Adventures pretty much write themselves, and everyone knows the setting well enough that all you have to say is “we’re playing Star Wars during the original films” and you know all the players instantly get it. On the other hand, I know my players all prefer different eras, so that’s a point of contention. Further, I’m just not that excited about Star Wars anymore, and that’s a deal-breaker for me.

Post-Apocalyptic: There are a few different games that all work under this basic setting conceit. But I was extremely disappointed in Numenera (the only thing really creative about that game is the very successful marketing of it). Each of the editions of Gamma World had a few good points and many issues. The best option was Masters of Umdaar, a World of Adventure for Fate Core, and while I thought it was a good read, I was looking for something with more depth to it.

Conclusion

I’ll be presenting the options to my players this week, and we’ll see which of those games generates the most interest. I’m looking forward to getting another game up and running—my D&D game for the kids fell by the wayside during the summer, as these things tend to do. I will definitely write more about whatever game we decide to play.

How do you go about choosing a game with your own group? Is it a group decision or does the GM pick one game and say “this is what I’m going to run?” Tell us about it in the comments.

Mythras Adventure: Betrayal at Shadewood Keep

As announced last week, I’ve been working on an adventure for the Mythras roleplaying game and the Classic Fantasy supplement, both fantastic RPG products published by The Design Mechanism.

The content for the adventure is complete and is currently undergoing review with TDM, and all that’s left at this point is to finish up the maps and complete the cover.

This week, I thought I’d share two of the maps I did for the game, and compare them to the original maps I published back in the early 2000’s when I first released the adventure. I’ve had a lot of years of experience creating stuff in Photoshop since then, and I think that the maps are definitely much better than what I had back in the day.

Region Map

The first map is for the region where the adventure takes place. In the original adventure, I split this up into two different maps, one for the overall region and one for all the various encounters in the Shadewood. Since I don’t need “filler” encounters when using Mythras and Classic Fantasy, I was able to streamline the encounters and simplify the map.

The originals:

Shadewood Keep.indb

Shadewood Keep.indb

The new map:

Print

Kewin Town

The region has a single large town—Kewin Town—and multiple smaller villages. The original map was done in Adobe Illustrator and was fairly simple. For the updated map, I wanted to improve upon it, so I moved over to Photoshop.

The original:

Shadewood Keep.indb

The new map:

Print

Encounter Areas

Last year, I spent a little bit of time updating the encounter maps as I intended to re-release the adventure, minus any reference to the D20 license. I had considered releasing the original version for 3.5, and also to add another version compatible with the Pathfinder RPG.

Here is a map that I did for the updated version. This encounter area will not appear in the new Mythras/Classic Fantasy version of the adventure, but it gives you an idea of the style of the new maps.

The original:

Shadewood Keep.indb

The new map:

Betrayal-Encounter-Map

What’s Next

I have a couple more maps to complete, and a few minor corrections to the text, then the final version will be sent off to The Design Mechanism for approval. Once that’s done, I’ll post the new cover and announce a release date on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.

I do intend to also have a print version of this adventure available—POD through DriveThru/RPGNow—but that will likely come a little bit later, and I’ll need to tweak the files for submission to Lightning Source, the POD supplier.

Once this adventure is complete, I’ll be back to working on The Traitor and the Thief. I’ve needed a bit of a break from the novel, as I have to rework a few sections and I needed to clear my head. But now I’m ready to get back to it and get the final draft done.

See you next week.

RuneQuest and Mythras

I first played the RuneQuest RPG back in the mid-80’s when my best friend ran a campaign centered around Griffin Island, a setting that had been adapted from the earlier Griffin Mountain of Glorantha fame. We spent a long time exploring the island, fighting orcs and broos, getting arrested and thrown in prison at least once, and generally causing as much mayhem as we solved.

I was never a fan of the larger Glorantha setting, as it never grabbed me. I found the sourcebooks unable to make me care about that world at all, and so we were happy to play on Griffin Island as a standalone location in a generic fantasy world that we never ended up exploring because there was more than enough adventure material on the island itself.

Since then, there have been a few editions of RuneQuest. One of the more well-known versions was the Mongoose Publishing RuneQuest 2E (MRQII), written by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. That game was a great version of the RuneQuest rules, and Mongoose gave back to the fan base by making the rules OGL, thereby ensuring that some version of the rules would always be available to anyone who wanted to use them.

When the Mongoose licence ended, they renamed their version of the game Legend (the core rules are still available in PDF from DriveThruRPG for only $1). Lawrence and Pete formed their own company, The Design Mechanism, and picked the licence back up. They released their own version of RuneQuest—for various numbering reasons referred to as RuneQuest 6—that took the work they had done on MRQII and expanded it in ways that they felt made a better game. It was a bit more complicated than previous versions, but the combat system, for example, allowed a level of detail that gave players a great deal of control over how they fought and inflicted wounds on their enemies. RuneQuest 6 is still held to be a high-point in the development of the game.

Ultimately, however, Chaosium found itself in dire straits and the original owners came back and rescued the company from its previous management team. Unfortunately, they also decided to pull the licences back in-house and, despite Pete and Lawrence keeping the game alive for many years when Chaosium did nothing to support it, The Design Mechanism could no longer publish RuneQuest 6.

Enter Mythras.

Mythras is The Design Mechanism’s version of RuneQuest 6 without needing to rely on the RuneQuest licence. They have further developed the system to implement some tweaks and ideas they had since RQ6 was published, and it’s an amazing game engine that still provides an experience that is in marked contrast to other big fantasy game, D&D.

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Mythras.

Since then, TDM also published the Classic Fantasy book, which takes the core ideas of D&D and moves them over into the d100 system framework. Classes are recreated in Mythras terms, monsters are converted, and many of the famous D&D magic spells have their counterparts in Classic Fantasy.

All of which leads me to my next RPG-related project.

Back in the early 2000’s, I published an adventure for D&D 3.5 called Betrayal at Shadewood Keep. When the d20 licence expired, I pulled that adventure from sale, intending to remove the d20 references and then put it back up. But I moved on to writing novels and never got around to it.

Lately, however, I’ve been using this blog to support great games that I enjoy. I looked at Betrayal at Shadewood Keep and realized that it would make a great adventure for Mythras and Classic Fantasy. So I reached out to The Design Mechanism and soon signed a licence agreement to allow me to re-publish a converted adventure for the Mythra/Classic Fantasy system.

I’ve been holding off on announcing this, as there was some important work to do on the adventure first. For example, in D&D 3.5, encounters are supposed to be set up to provide a particular level-based challenge at any given time. This results in a lot of “filler” encounters—combats that serve no other purpose than to provide some needed experience points so that the characters are the right level for later encounters.

Of course, those filler encounters are not necessary in Mythras, as there are no levels or restricted progression paths. So what I’ve done is take a look at the basic premise of the adventure, extract out the key elements and NPCs (and monsters), and redevelop it as an adventure that provides more open options and challenges that can be overcome in many different ways.

At this point, I’ve completed all the writing on the new version of Betrayal at Shadewood Keep, and the adventure is with the TDM folks for review. I’ve got a few maps that I need to complete, and then I’ll be publishing it through my Vanishing Goblin publisher on the OneBookShelf sites (DriveThruRPG and RPGNow). I expect this part to take a few weeks still, but over the next little while I’ll post the new cover design and a sneak peek or two.

In the meantime, here is the blurb for the adventure:

Raiding parties have been emerging from the dark Shadewood Forest to attack local villages. The paladin responsible for protecting the area is unable to stem the tide of destruction. Can you protect the helpless villages while uncovering the mastermind behind the attacks? Or will you fall prey to Betrayal at Shadewood Keep?

That’s it for this week. Check back next week for some sneak peeks at the adventure, as well as information on some of my other projects.

Espionage Games in Fate – Part 4

Here is the fourth and final part of my series of posts on espionage gaming with Fate Core, using some of the ideas for “streamlined” systems from the original Spycraft rpg published by AEG back in 2002.

The other articles can be found at these links:

The elements that I’ve been discussing throughout this series are:

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

This week, I’m going to cover the final three elements: Direct Assaults, Seductions, and Area Pursuits. I’m also going to discuss crossing over these elements with each other, and adding ways to get the whole party of agents involved when running a lone-agent part of the mission.

Direct Assaults

Some of the richer and more powerful villains James Bond has fought have been able to field veritable armies of minions. Take, for example, 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.

To be honest, I’m not going to come up with anything new here—there is already a solution in the Fate SRD that covers this kind of action: Squad-Based Action.

Since I’ve been discussing more of an action espionage game (rather than a game that’s more in a vein of something Le Carre might write), you may decide it’s likely that the team of agents will engage in a larger battle during the espionage campaign. That’s where these rules come into play.

Why the Assault?

In an espionage game, the general rule is that secrecy is paramount. However, in an action-espionage game, there are times when a quiet operation is not an option, and the team’s agency needs to lead a larger force to complete an objective.

Some examples from James Bond movies include:

  • Goldfinger – American military troops fight Goldfinger’s army outside Fort Knox while Bond battles Oddjob inside the vault.
  • Thunderball – The underwater battle between Largo’s henchmen and the U.S. Coast Guard personnel.
  • You Only Live Twice – The battle in the hollow volcano between Blofeld’s soldiers and Tanaka’s ninjas.
  • On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – The raid on Blofeld’s institute in the Swiss Alps by Bond with the help of Marc-Ange Draco’s men.
  • The Spy Who Loved Me – The soldiers from the captured submarines fight against Stromberg’s forces inside his modified oil tanker.
  • Moonraker – The battle in space between the U.S. Marines and Drax’s personal army.

The key thing to keep in mind when running a Direct Assault is that the agents are generally trying to accomplish a particular objective, above and beyond the assault itself. Objectives could include any of the following:

  • Stopping the launch of a missile, aircraft, rocket, or other countdown-based event.
  • Taking out the soldiers of the villain’s army while the PCs pursue the villain.
  • Fighting their way out (after being captured and taken prisoner).
  • Preventing the villain’s forces from taking over a target location.
  • Rescuing an individual or a group of persons.
  • Destroying a device, such as a superweapon.

In these cases, it should be up to the PCs to accomplish the actual objective, while the remaining forces support them or focus on a secondary objective (e.g. wiping out the villain’s private army). Using Squad-Based Action rules, have the players roll Operations as an Overcome with a difficulty appropriate to the target to see how things turn out. If they are successful, the players should narrate one good outcome for every shift above the target. If they fail, the GM will narrate one negative outcome for every shift below the target.

Seduction

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.

The Goals

With Seduction, the goals can be more open than one might think at first.

  • Gather Intel: This is the most common, and most obvious, goal of a seduction. The seducer convinces the target to give them information that is otherwise difficult or impossible to obtain.
  • Compromise Target: Often as a prelude to blackmail, the goal of the seduction is to put the target in a compromising position and take evidence of the encounter to be used against them later.
  • Set-Up: The seducer uses the seduction to get the target to a particular location, or otherwise get them to drop their guard so that they can be more easily kidnapped or assassinated.
  • Flipping: The target (usually someone in the enemy organization) is believed to be open to switching sides, and just needs the right form of convincing.

The Challenge

Generally, this type of encounter should be run as a Challenge. Passive opposition could be represented by circumstances (e.g. getting the right opportunity to meet the target) and active opposition could be such elements as the target’s resistance to the seduction, enemy surveillance of the target, etc.

Note that the seduction attempt has a variable time frame. The entire seduction could take place over a single evening, or be spread out over weeks or even months of game time. Once the seduction attempt begins, the GM should keep track of the current state of affairs (no pun intended) for the target character.

Initial Meeting: This represents the initial meeting between the seducer and the target at the beginning of the seduction attempt. The two characters may have already met previously, and there could even be an Aspect on the NPC as a result of their previous meetings. The point of the initial meeting is to establish some connection with the target beyond just having met them—there should be at least an indication of interest.

Building the Attraction: The key elements here are a) spending time with the target, b) demonstrating interest and c) convincing the target that they should be interested in the seducer. Generally, this stage should take at least two rolls over the time of the seduction.

Beginning the Intimacies: Once the seducer has reached this stage, he or she needs to bring the target over the threshold of actually acting on their interest. This could be nothing more than kisses and promises, or it could go all the way to having sex with the target.

Completing the Objective: This is a single step that means the seducer has succeeded in getting what they want from the target. If it’s information, then the target reveals what the seducer wants to know. If it’s compromising pictures or video, then the seducer has what they need for blackmail. If it’s a set-up, then the target is in a position to be kidnapped, assassinated, or whatever the particular objective was. If it’s flipping, then the target has decided to switch sides.

Once the target has been successfully seduced, the seducer will often not need to make any further rolls (unlike Infiltrations, which require a successful escape from the target facility). However, the GM may ask the PC to make a final roll in the Challenge to reflect special circumstances, such as eliminating any forensic evidence from the crime scene if the target was assassinated, for example. This should depend on the final objective of the seduction.

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.

Alternately, the team of agents may be the quarry in an area pursuit. The enemy organization may be conducting the pursuit directly, or using local law enforcement or military personnel, depending on its influence in the region where the pursuit is taking place.

The Goals

The goals in an area pursuit are pretty simple. If the agents are conducting the pursuit, the goal is to find the target before he or she escapes. If the agents are the quarry, the goal is to escape the area without being caught.

The Contest

Area Pursuits are run as a contest between the team of agents and the other side (regardless whether are quarry or hunters). In the Fate Core rules, the first side to achieve three victories wins the contest. This should generally be the case in Area Pursuits, though the GM may choose to require four or even five victories, depending on the nature of the pursuit and how important to the action he or she feels it is.

Exposure

Generally, the organization that the agents work for prefers to remain in the shadows, and operations should usually be conducted with some discretion. Area Pursuits, especially those that utilize local law enforcement, have the potential to be noticed by the public and the press. This is something that should be avoided.

In an Area Pursuit, the GM should track the Exposure of the operation, which is a rating that indicates how noticeable the pursuit is, and which starts at zero. Whenever an exchange results in a tie, in addition to the unexpected twist that results, the Exposure goes up by 1. This represents bystanders and/or media noticing something going on in the area.

If the Exposure ever hits 3 or more, the operation is no longer covert. This means that someone got pictures or video on their phone of the chase, or a reporter picked up on the local law enforcement efforts, or something similar.

If the agents are the hunters in an area pursuit, then the GM may determine that the agency wants the hunt to be conducted covertly. In this case, if the Exposure reaches 3, the agency may choose to shut down the operation. If the operation is shut down immediately, the exposure blows over and does not turn into a real story. However, if the operation is not shut down, then it means that it will soon become public knowledge as the footage is posted on YouTube, or a media outlet runs a story on it. This may have further repercussions for the agents.

If the agents are the quarry in the area pursuit, then they won’t have the option to shut down the operation, except if they choose to let themselves be captured by the forces hunting them. However, even if they escape the Area Pursuit, if the Exposure reaches 3, then their faces are recorded in pictures and video and likely gets into the local media. This will likely cause problems down the road and they may face consequences from the agency.

Teamwork

Some of the elements that I’ve covered over the last few weeks pit a lone agent against the opposition. These include Physical Infiltration, Face-to-Face Infiltration, Electronic Infiltration, and even Seduction.

One of the best bits of Fate, however, is how PCs may support each other and give fellow agents bonuses in the form of Creating Advantages (Aspects) that the lone PC may use as a benefit during their mission.

The agents are encouraged to support one another with their specialties when an agent is preparing for a mission. A techie agent could Create an Advantage to give the infiltrating agent a “Stealth Gear” Aspect that could be used during a Physical Infiltration, for example.

Electronic Infiltrations could also be used to prepare the enemy location for another agent to conduct a Physical or Face-to-Face Infiltration. In fact, an Electronic Infiltration could be run simultaneously with a Physical or Face-to-Face Infiltration, with the hacker providing support and helping out the agent that is actually in the enemy facility.

And there’s nothing that says you have to do all the preparation before the mission begins, either. A GM could permit the other players to provide support—usually through the Create an Advantage action—at the time it’s needed, and simply describe it through a quick flashback. This has the added bonus of keeping the action moving—the players don’t need to plan out every element of the mission at the beginning because they can dynamically respond to obstacles as they come up, and just describe them as things they identified during the planning session that they would have had.

Crossing Mission Elements

The various elements that I’ve described here also don’t need to be used in isolation. They could be combined in all kinds of ways.

I’ve already mentioned conducting an Electronic Infiltration at the same time as a Physical or Face-to-Face Infiltration. But how about any of the following:

  • One agent could conduct a Face-to-Face Infiltration in conjunction with another agent conducting an Electronic Infiltration. In the meantime, a third agent conducts a Physical Infiltration. The Face-to-Face agent attempts to make contact with someone inside the organization that is ready to be turned. The Physical Infiltrator plants a tracking device on a piece of equipment in the manufacturing plant part of the building. The Electronic Infiltrator supports both other agents while also searching for some files on the enemy organization’s servers. When the Face-to-Face Infiltrator meets the target, he or she initiates the first step in a Seduction, laying the groundwork for further meetings later on.
  • One agent conducts a Physical Infiltration in order to prepare an entry route for a Direct Assault.
  • As above, but the Direct Assault’s objective is to rescue some prisoners, and also provide a diversion while the Electronic Infiltrator plants a virus in the organization’s mainframe.

As you can see, when you combine these pieces in various ways, you can have exciting action-oriented missions that give every agent something to do. No one is left out, and the game keeps moving.

What’s Next?

These posts were my attempt to share some ideas I had about combining some great concepts from the Spycraft RPG with the amazing Fate engine. I love running action-espionage gaming, and Fate is a fantastic set of rules that truly enable exciting, fast-paced games like this.

To that end, I’ve also been working on a supplement for espionage gaming in Fate, including a full organization for PC agents, a whole bunch of fully fleshed-out threats to go up against, and a complete opening adventure for the GM to use to kick off a campaign.

I’m not going to give a projected release date for this supplement—I’ve got some other things that I need to get finished first—but I can say it won’t be more than 2-3 months.

Thanks for reading this series of articles, and I hope it benefits your game in some way. If you use anything I’ve written about in these articles, please comment below and let me know how it went.

Espionage Games in Fate – Part 3

This is a continuation of my posts about using some of the ideas in the first edition of the Spycraft RPG to run espionage games in Fate Core.

The elements that I’m discussing are:

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

This week, I’m going to talk about both Face-to-Face and Electronic Infiltration, and Interrogations. Both of these are similar in many ways to the Physical Infiltration topic discussed last week, but both have some important distinctions.

Face-to-Face Infiltration

It takes an unflappable demeanour 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.

The Goals

Every mission should have a goal or objective. Just like in Physical Infiltrations, the goal should be specific to a single piece of information or equipment, or a single target.

Again, examples include:

  • Gather intel
  • Steal a physical item
  • Sabotage

Note that when speaking of stealing an item or sabotage, the target does not necessarily have to be an inanimate object. Sometimes—and this applies to Physical Infiltrations as well—the target is a person. For example, “stealing an item” could also refer to rescuing or even kidnapping a person from the organization’s facility. Sabotage could also mean eliminating (i.e. assassinating) a member of the enemy organization, or just planting evidence to frame them for either a crime or a violation of the organization’s policies.

The Challenge

Again, like the Physical Infiltration, the security forces at the facility usually begin unaware of the attempted infiltration by the spy, and so the resistance is passive.

Here are some common elements that appear in many Face-to-Face Infiltration missions:

  • Gaining Initial Access: The spy must enter the facility somehow. If this is a short-term mission (i.e. getting in and out within a couple of hours at the most), the spy will need to bypass the initial security checkpoint usually by posing as a general employee of the organization (or one of their contractors) or a specific individual. This may include using false identification, disguises, and the Deceive skill to convince the security forces (or systems) that you belong. Usually, this is a single roll in the Challenge.

    In a long-term mission, the spy may spend weeks or even months infiltrating the organization by posing as a valued member of the team. In these cases, gaining initial access means convincing the organization to hire the spy or otherwise let them join the organization. It often requires the creation of a false identity with a complete history, and the spy must maintain that identity throughout the vetting process. Again, Deceive is usually the main skill here, though Rapport and Empathy play their part, and perhaps other skills may be needed to demonstrate competence in a field of expertise needed by the organization. As this step takes much longer than in a short-term mission, and usually requires surviving a more thorough investigation into the spy’s fake identity as well as proving him- or herself, this often takes 2-3 rolls in the Challenge.

  • Reaching the Objective: In a short-term mission, getting to the objective could be 1-3 steps in the Challenge, based on the obstacles determined by the GM. Generally, the obstacles involve interacting with other individuals (e.g. bypassing further security checkpoints, interacting with other workers at the facility, etc.) though they could also include the occasional physical challenge (e.g. secured doors, sneaking into a restricted area, etc.).

    In a long-term mission, this is the part that may take weeks to months to complete, depending on the nature of the mission. For example, an objective may be to gain the main villain’s trust in order to replace his trusted second-in-command (perhaps as part of a mission to kidnap and interrogate the second-in-command about the villain’s plans). In such a case, it might take a couple of months for the spy to set events in motion that show the lieutenant as incompetent or untrustworthy while demonstrating the spy’s value to the villain. Such a mission would also include multiple steps, perhaps involving a number of different still rolls.

  • Completing the Objective: Like in Physical Intrusions, this could include accessing a computer system, planting a bomb, securing an item, eliminating a target, etc. This is the moment-of-truth in a long-term infiltration, and all the spy’s efforts will come down to that one skill roll.
  • Getting Out: In short-term missions, the egress from the facility should be fairly short, just like in Physical Infiltrations.

    In long-term missions, this may take a bit longer, though the GM should generally keep it to an absolute maximum of 2-3 rolls. After all, the climax of the mission has passed, and dragging things out will not really add any value to the game.

Here are two examples, one of a short-term Face-to-Face Infiltration, and one long-term.

Short-Term Infiltration

Joshua Pact is performing a short-term infiltration of a villain organization’s facility—a massive data centre where all the organization’s main servers are kept under tight security. His objective is to locate a specific server and plant a physical intercept device on one of the data lines that will transmit copies of all data to an offsite location controlled by the spy’s team. It is important that he not be detected during the mission, as he does not want the organization to know they have been compromised.

The GM has set the difficulty of each step at Good (+3).

Step One: In order to save time and make this a quick mission, the GM tells Josh that he has a fake identity card that has been programmed to work in the facility’s security system. But getting into the right location and reassuring the security and other personnel at the location is up to him.

Josh arrives at the building dressed as a computer technician and approaches the entrance. A team of three security guards stand at the main desk in the building lobby, where the access control system is located. Josh inserts his card into the reader, and his face—along with his fake identity—come up on the screen. One security guard nods at him to proceed, but another holds up his hand and asks Josh if he’s new here. Josh answers in the affirmative, and the security guard asks him a couple of questions about his job. The GM tells Josh to make a Deceive roll to bluff the guard. Josh rolls +3, a tie. The GM allows Josh to proceed, but takes a boost indicating that the guard is slightly “Suspicious” and may make trouble for Josh as he tries to reach his objective.

Step Two: The GM has decided that it will take two steps to reach the room with the server. First, Josh has to pass through the employee lunchroom to “drop off” his lunch bag (where he’s hidden the intercept device). Naturally, he encounters a couple of co-workers, one of whom is trying to figure out a thorny computer issue. They stop Josh, introduce themselves to the “new guy” and then ask him his opinion of the computer problem. The GM asks Josh to make a Crafts roll to, if not solve the problem, at least convince his co-workers that he is a skilled computer technician. The GM tells the player that if he succeeds on the roll, he convinces the two men of his skills, and if he succeeds with style, he solves the problem. Josh rolls +4, beating the difficulty but not with style. He is unable to help with the problem, but the co-workers believe he knows enough about computers to pass.

Step Three: The next step involves getting to the correct server without being noticed. The supervisor on this shift greets Josh as he enters the main server room and is annoyed about being given a new employee without being advised in advance. Josh tries to convince the supervisor that he has been assigned to do spot checks on various servers as part of an internal audit, which will allow him to roam unaccompanied among the rows of servers. The GM invokes his “Suspicious” boost from earlier—the security guard called the supervisor and asked him to keep an eye on Josh—so the difficulty is now Superb (+5). Josh rolls and gets 5 exactly. The GM tells Josh that the supervisor wants to accompany him, but the man gets a call at that exact moment. Josh has only a couple of minutes to locate the server and plant the device before the supervisor rejoins him.

Step Four: Josh finds the server and makes his Crafts roll to place the device. He succeeds with style, and so manages to get back to the supervisor’s desk before the man’s call ends. The GM gives Josh a “Flawless Cover” boost for the final step of the mission.

Step Five: Josh is required to finish out his shift at the data centre before leaving so that he doesn’t arouse any further suspicion. He performs routine examination of the servers and looks over the team’s maintenance logs and assorted documentation, and then congratulates the supervisor on a well-run operation. He makes a final Deceive skill check to cover his activities over those next few hours and, using his “Flawless Cover” boost, succeeds with no issues. Josh leaves the building having completed a successful mission.

Long-Term Infiltration

Natalie Romkovski is performing a long-term infiltration of an organization. Her team has identified the villain’s second-in-command, Rose Boon, as a major asset to the villain, and they feel that isolating her from the organization so that they can pick her up and attempt to turn her. They know this is going to be a long mission, but Natalie is skilled at these types of infiltrations. The GM has set the difficulty of each step at Good (+3).

Step One: Natalie first has to join the organization, and this is no easy task. She begins by identifying an individual that the organization has targeted for elimination. She finds the target and fakes his assassination, making it look like she has solved a problem for them. The GM has her roll Deceive in order to create a fake crime scene that will stand up to inspection. Natalie rolls a 4, and succeeds.

Step Two: Having gotten noticed by the organization, Natalie attends a gala party (faking her invitation, of course) so that she can “bump into” Rose Boon. It is easy for Natalie to find her target, and so she makes contact. She rolls Rapport to charm Rose and ensure that the other woman doesn’t forget about her. Natalie succeeds with style, and so the GM gives her the “Impressed” boost.

Step Three: Natalie is contacted by Rose after the gala and a meeting is arranged. Again, Natalie has to roll Deceive in order to ensure that her cover as an international assassin is not pierced by Rose’s investigation into her background and history. Natalie fails, but uses her “Impressed” boost to bump that up to a success.

Step Four: Rose brings Natalie to meet the villain, and he offers her a position within his organization. Now she can get to work making Rose look incompetent and untrustworthy. The GM decides that it will take three steps to get the villain to abandon Rose, and Natalie begins working immediately. Over the next couple of weeks, Natalie takes an opportunity to break into Rose’s office and plant incriminating evidence in her office safe. Natalie makes a Burglary roll and just barely succeeds.

Step Five: For the second of the steps that Natalie needs to frame Rose, she causes one of Rose’s operations to fail by sabotaging a key piece of equipment. Natalie rolls Crafts to sabotage the item, and fails. The GM allows her to succeed with a cost by giving Rose the aspect “Suspicious of Natalie” as she begins to realize what the other woman is doing.

Step Six: For the third and final check to frame Rose, Natalie confronts Rose directly and starts an argument about the best way to conduct an upcoming operation. Natalie uses to Provoke to get Rose to get so angry that she flies off the handle and loses control in front of the main villain. Since Rose is “Suspicious of Natalie,” the GM bumps the difficulty up by +2 to Superb (+5). Natalie invokes one of her own aspects (“Get under your skin”) to give herself a +2 and rolls a total of 6, succeeding. Their argument causes Rose to lose control, and she marches into the main villain’s office and demands that Natalie be captured as an enemy spy. But Natalie tells the villain that Rose is the spy, and when the incriminating documents are found in Rose’s office, he falls for the ruse. Rose flees the facility before the villain’s goons can grab her, and the mission is a success.

Step Seven: Natalie now needs to be extracted from the organization—it’s too dangerous to stay near the mentally-unstable villain—but she cannot just run or the villain will realize that Rose was framed. So Natalie decides to fake her death by assassination. She uses her Deceive skill to fake both the crime scene and a video of the assassination, and beats the difficulty by 1. The villain believes she has been killed, is left without a competent second-in-command in his organization, and the rest of the agent team now goes to pick up Rose, who has been burned and is now without resources.

Electronic Infiltration

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 backdoors for later easy access.

The Goals

With Electronic Infiltration, some different goals are available than when the person is physically intruding into the facility.

  • Gather Intel: This goal is the same as the previous infiltrations, in that the spy is gaining access to files or other information in order to copy them for their own team’s use.
  • Sabotage: Planting physical bombs or such are not possible in Electronic Infiltration. However, the spy can sabotage data and even cause damage to equipment that is controlled by a computer.
  • Lay Groundwork: A spy can hack into a computer system and place “back doors” that will allow easy access back into the system at a later date. The spy can also set up false identities in security systems, hijack digital security cameras, and otherwise “prepare” a location for later physical infiltration by adjusting systems to make it easier for intruders to bypass them.

The Skills Issue

If you’re using the default Fate Core skill list, you’ll note that there is no “Computer” skill. This means that the hacker cannot fall back on a single skill to succeed at every type of task he or she will attempt through the computer interface. This is a good thing, as you don’t want any member of the team to have one catch-all skill that can be applied in every circumstance.

My recommendation is that the hacker uses the same skills as their counterparts, and they should have an aspect (probably their High Concept) that gives them permission to use those skills as part of their hacking activities. So instead of using a Computers skill to sneak around in a network system and also to search for files and also to disable access barriers, the hacker will use Stealth and Investigate and Burglary. This also means that different hackers will be good at different types of hacking—someone with a high Stealth is better at sneaking into a system, whereas someone with a high Investigation will be able to quickly find whatever data they want in that network.

The Challenge

As in the other types of infiltration, the resistance to an Electronic Infiltration is passive at the beginning of the mission. Therefore, this is generally a Challenge, though of course it could become a Contest at some point (e.g. the hacker attempting to copy certain data files before they are erased by the opposition). It is rare for Conflicts to arise from an Electronic Infiltration, as the hacker and the opposition usually have no way to directly harm each other, either physically or mentally.

  • Gaining Initial Access: Getting into the system requires a network connection of some kind—you can’t hack into a computer that is not connected to the outside world unless you’re in the same room with the physical equipment. But once that connection is established, the hacker can attempt to gain access through multiple approaches, such as fooling the system into thinking the hacker is an authorized user, bypassing the security software by using underlying system processes to gain entry, or using brute force to disable the security software with an overwhelming attack.
  • Reaching the Objective: The key elements in these steps of a Challenge are usually a) finding the data the hacker wants, and b) getting access to it if it’s restricted.
  • Completing the Objective: This is a single step that means the hacker has achieved the mission objective. As noted above, this could be copying and/or destroying data, placing data (e.g. fake credentials) or back doors in the system, or taking control of physical assets controlled by the computer system.
  • Getting Out: Disconnecting from the system is nearly instantaneous, but this step can represent pulling out of the system without leaving any traces that an investigator can use to identify or track the hacker after the fact.

Physical Assets

The reality is that it is extremely difficult to cause physical damage to a computer system through purely hacking methods. While it is possible for a hacker to turn off the fans and cause the CPU to process so much data that it overheats and potentially catches fire, this is actually very difficult to do and the damage would be very localized and likely be detected almost immediately.

However, there are real-world examples of hackers taking control of physical assets that are connected to computers and using those to do damage. For example, the Stuxnet worm used programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to cause fast-spinning centrifuges in Iranian nuclear facilities to tear themselves apart by making them spin at extremely high speeds and disabling the safety shut-down protocols. So the physical assets were damaged, though the computers themselves were not physically harmed in any way.

But the players are encouraged to be creative with their ability to do damage with physical assets that are controlled by networked computer systems. Imagine a villain organization with a manufacturing plant that uses lasers on robotic arms to cut and weld metal parts. If the spy hacker could take control of those robotic arms, then he or she could use them to damage other nearby equipment or even assassinate someone standing in range of the lasers.

Interrogations

The last element I’m going to cover this week is Interrogations. As mentioned in the Fate Core rulebook, interrogations are generally Conflicts rather than Challenges. The interrogator(s) are trying to cause mental damage (usually) to the target in order to force them to concede and give up the information they want. The target is trying to resist by causing mental damage to the interrogators to undermine their confidence, exhaust them, and otherwise convince them to give up.

Interrogations sit on a spectrum as to how the target is treated. At one end of the spectrum is forceful questioning—the target is asked questions in a direct and forthright manner and not permitted to leave until he or she has given up the information. At the other end of the spectrum is torture, where the questioners physically and mentally do harm to the person to break their will. Between those two points is a vast space where the player characters can choose to act.

Obviously, the type of game being played will inform the kinds of decisions the PCs (and thus the players) choose to make about how far along that spectrum they are willing to go. In a light-hearted action-espionage game, moving toward torture is going to be out of place. But in a gritty, dangerous setting where life is cheap, interrogations may regularly feature some sort of physical punishment.

This is something that the GM and players should discuss before the game, to ensure everyone is on the same page and that all players at the table are having fun.

“Taken Out” and Concessions

If the agents want to have confidence in the information they are given, it is important that they overcome the target’s willpower. This means that they should focus on inflicting Mental stress and consequences.

So what happens if they just choose to beat up the target until he or she is taken out? I recommend that a target who has been taken out (or concedes) with purely physical attacks tells the agents what he or she thinks they want to hear, rather than the actual truth. Torture of this nature is notoriously unreliable, and the agents should be aware that they can never trust the information gotten through these methods alone.

This also applies to the old “I put my gun to the target’s head and tell him that I’ll shoot him if he doesn’t start talking” approach. If the target has an option to lie or otherwise provide false information, he or she will take it.

However, if the agents choose to engage in physical attacks during an interrogation, its value is in giving bonuses to rolls in the mental conflict. For example, if the agents keep the target awake for long periods of time and the target ends up with an “Exhausted” aspect, then the agents can use that aspect to help them with their rolls to break down the target’s mental resistance to giving up the information.

Note that some common action-espionage movie tropes—like the aforementioned putting their gun to a target’s head and demanding information—should work in certain types of games. In those cases, a straight Provoke roll can be used to determine if it gets the agents the information they want and the game then moves on. Don’t feel constrained to play out a long interrogation if it doesn’t fit the pace of the current game.

The Final Installment

Next week, I’ll post my final notes on running espionage games, including Direct Assaults, Seductions, and Area Pursuits, along with a bit of discussion on ways to incorporate the rest of the agent team into the single-agent Infiltrations in order to keep all the players engaged.

See you then.

 

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.