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.

 

Night’s Black Agents and Shadowforce Archer

 

I’ve written before about Night’s Black Agents (NBA), and what a great game it is. One of the coolest things about the game is how it gives a GM the tools to develop a conspiracy that the players can unravel.

I’ve recently been given a chance to start a new game with a new group of gamers, and they all voted to play an espionage game. We’re talking about super-spies, here, so it’s not going to be terribly realistic.

To that end, I was a big fan of the Shadowforce Archer (SFA) setting that was published by AEG back in the early 2000s. It was really creative, it was fun, and it was filled with great hooks for action-espionage adventures.

But there’s so much stuff in the SFA setting, it can get overwhelming. Especially since almost everything is linked to everything else. So for this campaign, I needed a tool to help me take out the bits and pieces of SFA I wanted to be at the forefront, and help me visually link all those elements to help run the game.

Enter the Conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents.

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUND

If you don’t want to know stuff about the Shadowforce Archer setting, or you’re one of my players and don’t want secrets spoiled, don’t read any further.

PDFs of the entire Shadowforce Archer line are still available on DriveThruRPG from Crafty Games, so if this ends up generating interest in the setting, you can still pick it up. There’s a bundle that contains the complete line that is actually pretty reasonably priced, considering what you get.

What I’ve done here is take the Conspyramid from NBA and apply it to my upcoming Shadowforce Archer campaign. Now, in the Shadowforce Archer setting, there is a massive, global conspiracy of espionage agencies that work together (mostly) to protect the world from major threats. The conspiracy has been broken up into Chambers, each responsible for a particular region of the world. And each Chamber’s methods reflect a particular type of action-espionage game the players might want to play.

The Chambers and their regional and play focus are:

  • Archer Foundation: Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific; Cold War spy intrigue
  • African Alliance: Africa; Bold and beautiful super-spies like James Bond
  • Company: North and South America; Military spy tactics like G.I. Joe or Nick Fury
  • European Commonwealth: Europe; Taught thriller action
  • Guardians of the Whispering Knife: the Middle East; Exotic, mystical and mysterious like Elektra
  • Pan-Asian Collective: Asia; Over-the-top anime style martial arts action
  • Room 39: the United Kingdom; Techno-thriller
  • Russian Confederacy: Russia; Dark and gritty antiheroes

Note that these Chambers pull people from all the individual espionage organizations that can be found in the various countries that make up each region. So this set-up was designs to facilitate different types of play in the same setting. But, for my campaign, I don’t need 8 different “good” espionage groups. Rather, I’d prefer 8 different villainous espionage conspiracies.

So, in order to facilitate play for my game, I’ve made one big change to the setting: the Conspiracy in which these superspy agencies work together doesn’t exist. The various Chambers from SFA do exist, but they are set up as individual villainous conspiracies that work to their own ends. This gives me a whole host of villains to use against the characters.

Surprisingly, this really didn’t require much work on my part – much of what makes these organizations “heroic” is the approach they take to achieving their goals. Alter that slightly, and it changes the tone of each of those organizations drastically.

The characters in this campaign are going to be full-time employees of a secretive group based deep in the United Nations, called UNION (United National Intelligence and Operations Network, which is an organization I created for a d20 Modern sourcebook I published more than a decade ago). They take on global conspiracies that are too big for any single intelligence organization to handle (which should give the game a nice Mission: Impossible feel).

The Conspiracy

Now, I’ve decided to start with a small conspiracy to get things moving, and to give the players time to get into their characters and the game. I’m still working on that smaller conspiracy—which uses a Threat from one of the SFA books—but I have already worked out the larger conspiracy that I want to use for the main part of the campaign.

I decided to start with The Shop as the major villain organization for the initial conspiracy to take down. It has its own dedicated book, and there is a great deal of information in all the other chamber books that mean there isn’t a ton of work I need to do to put it into the Conspyramid.

Note: All of the following material needs the actual Shadowforce Archer books to make full use of it. If you’re not familiar at all with the setting, you may have trouble making sense of this stuff.

So here’s my Conspyramid.

NBA-TheShop-Conspyramid

I’ll start at the top and work my way down.

Level 6: Core Leadership

The Plan: As noted in The Shop book (p. 35), The Plan is how people in the organization refer to the 8-member council that runs the conspiracy. These people are all psions, and they are all under the control of the Psion Imperative. I’ve decided that the Psion Imperative is like an almost-sentient virus that wants to replicate itself. Ultimately, it wants to forcibly evolve humans until they can carry all three strains of the psion formula, which would be the point at which the Psion Imperative would become a fully-sentient, hive-like being.

Level 5: Supranational

Dennis Gray: Dennis (Shadowforce Archer Worldbook, p. 159) is in charge of the operational arm of the Shop. He has not been infected by any of the psion strains, and is focused on managing the organization so that they continue to keep their technological edge over their adversaries.

Villain X: Technically, Villain X (The Shop Threat Book, p. 58) is listed as currently being subordinate to Dennis Gray. In my Conspyramid, I’ve put him as one of the top two people in the organization, as he is the top leader for missions in the field (as opposed to Dennis Gray’s control from the shadows).

Level 4 and below

Level 4 of the conspiracy is where the three main activities of the organization are managed, and these run down through the lower levels in three main “threads.”

Samantha Abbot (Shadowforce Archer Worldbook, p. 244) is responsible for counter-espionage and the compromising of agents from other organizations. She oversees Romeo Amatee’s brainwashing program, which operates through Club Demetrian (Archer Foundation Chamber Book, p. 121), an exclusive resort for the wealthy and connected. She has a number of assets embedded in national espionage agencies around the world, and she manages them through Michael Bobal (my own creation), a former CIA handler. Orianne Rose (my own creation), a psychiatrist, is always on call to talk compromised agents through any difficulties they may have due to side-effects of the brainwashing process.

Michael Bobal gives missions to Robert Malone (Archer Foundation Chamber Book, p. 123), Viktoria Geier (my own creation), and Gabriel Kidd (my own creation) based on whatever the Shop needs at any given time. Bobal has other turned agents in other espionage organizations around the world who have been through the Club Demetrian brainwashing program, so I can come up with anyone I need in any organization based on where the PCs go.

The second main thread goes through Scott Swanson (The Shop Threat Book, p. 100), who is based on the Leviathan (The Shop Threat Book, p. 111). He organizes strikes against Shop enemies, as well as the collection of technology the Shop wants to reverse-engineer. Kryptos (Shadowforce Archer Worldbook, p. 245) reports directly to Swanson and handles the technical aspects of the operations, using Bobal to coordinate the Shop strike teams, or Strik-9 (Shadowforce Archer Worldbook, p. 245) for assassination  jobs.

The last main thread goes through Raymond Bullock (The Shop Threat Book, p. 148), who is based on the Overwatch space station. (I know that in the official setting, Overwatch belongs to the Archer Foundation, but I think it works better if I put it in the hands of the Shop.) Sebastian Noir (The Shop Threat Book, p. 109) organizes all shipments of supplies to the station from his base in the Grecian Alps.

Sylviane Boucher (my creation) is responsible for the development and testing of new Psi-tech devices, and so works under both Scott Swanson and Raymond Bullock. She coordinates with the Parisian Institute (The Shop Threat Book, p. 40), where most of the R&D work gets done before the prototypes are shipped to the Barcelona testing facility (my creation) where it gets distributed to field teams for final in-field testing before full deployment. This testing facility has brought the Shop into conflict with the Hernandez family (The Shop Threat Book, p. 46) in Spain, another potential point of contact for the agents.

The Barcelona testing facility also coordinates strikes by Blade Hawk teams against Shop enemies.

How will the agents get involved?

The plan is to start this part of the campaign with the agents hired to look into Robert Malone, who is supposed to be a retired agent, but has been caught on surveillance footage leading a merc team in a strike against one of the facilities where the Hernandez family has a major criminal operation (e.g. a drug packaging and distribution facility).

This will give the agents a couple of threads to pull.

One, Robert Malone is having difficulties due to the brainwashing, and he’s getting increasingly paranoid and violent. He’s been talking to Orianne Rose over the phone every couple of days, and she even flew into Barcelona about a week ago to spend the weekend with Malone to help him work on regaining control of himself.

Two, Malone is engaged in an operation against the Hernandez family in Barcelona. At this point, he’s being kept at arms-length by the Shop. He doesn’t actually know that’s who he’s working for. If the agents make contact with any people from the Hernandez’ organization, they can discover that some other organization has moved into this territory and started muscling in on criminal activities. And this other organization has weapons and other tech that’s a cut above what’s normally available.

From there, I expect they’ll track Malone back to Orianne Rose (and probably Michael Bobal). Alternately, they may find themselves helping out the Hernandez family against Shop strike teams, which should lead them back to the Barcelona Testing Facility.

Either way, they’ll have a route up to level 2 of the conspiracy, which provides all kinds of opportunities.

Also note that there are a number of other named Shop agents in The Shop Threat Book, but I’m holding them in reserve to drop them in when and where I need them to either provide more of a challenge if things are going too easy, or as ways to drop more clues for the agents to find if they need the help.

Conclusion

The Conspyramid from Night’s Black Agents is a fantastic tool for designing a conspiracy in an espionage campaign. And it doesn’t even have to involve vampires, though it’s great for that as well. Even if you don’t run an NBA game, there’s so much useful material there for espionage campaigns that it’s worth picking up regardless.

Jason Bourne versus…Vampires?!?

 

I’m not afraid to admit that I have a problem. I buy more role-playing game books than I will ever have time to play, despite my sincere desire to do so.

There are whole lines of games that I absolutely love, and for which I have purchased all (or at least the vast majority) of book, but that I’ve never gotten to run for any gaming group. And yet, I can’t help myself—there’s just too much good stuff out there to let it pass me by.

Night’s Black Agents is one such game.

Back in 2007, Pelgrane Press released The Esoterrorists, a game using a new system, which they called The GUMSHOE System. At the time, the GUMSHOE System purported to fix a problem that I never had—investigative scenarios that hinged on the players making a particular role to gain a particular clue that was required for the game to proceed. If the players didn’t successfully make that role, it would be a roadblock in the scenario.

The GUMSHOE System was advertised as a game system where that couldn’t happen, as characters will always find the essential clues needed to proceed. It’s not about finding clues, but interpreting the clues they have.

Personally, I always looked at that particular situation as a failure of both the written scenario and the person running the game. If you set up your scenario so that a single failed roll can stall everything, then you’ve made a big mistake. It wasn’t the system that was the problem there at all.

So I passed by on The Esoterrorists, and Fear Itself, and Trail of Cthulhu, and Mutant City Blues, and Ashen Stars (though that game’s premise did peak my interest for a bit).

But Night’s Black Agents (which I’ll just refer to as NBA from here on out) is the one that got me.

The premise of NBA is that the player characters are former spies (e.g. ex-CIA, or ex-KGB, or ex-MI6, etc.). At some point in their past, these characters broke from their respective agencies. Maybe they retired (yeah, right), maybe they were burned, maybe they faked their own deaths, whatever. Since that time, they’ve operated as independent agents, keeping a low profile and working on jobs as necessary as make a living.

The game begins when they get called together for a job, a la Ronin. But when things go south, they discover that there is some real strangeness going on—things that don’t have easy explanations. And they are no longer in a position to just walk away, because the conspiracy is now aware of them.

Ultimately, NBA is about uncovering a conspiracy ultimately controlled by vampires. Imagine if the secret head of Treadstone (from The Bourne Identity film) was actually a blood-sucking fiend, using the organization to eliminate threats to its own survival and control.

Now vampires in NBA don’t have to actually be blood-sucking fiends at all. The game provides many options for the Director (the name for the person running the game) to create his or her own unique vampire nemesis.

When creating your vampires, the game offers multiple options. For example, how can you generally class your vampires?

  • Supernatural: “Vampires are the result of magical or other supernatural activities on Earth: spirits, ghosts, necromancy, witchcraft, and the like.”
  • Damned: “Vampires are the work of Satan or other explicitly demonic entities opposed to mankind and God.”
  • Alien: “Vampires are alien beings, or earthly beings who nevertheless follow different laws of physics. Such ‘paraphysical’ vampires might be alien invaders, psychic phenomena, corpses animated by alien science, or just ‘humans’ from another dimension.”
  • Mutant: Vampires are earthly beings infected or changed by (or into) some freak of nature. Such ‘parabiological’ vampires may be mutants, constructs of some black program, humans adapted to future conditions of plague or global cooling, insane humans obsessed with blood, or sentient diseases that possess their hosts.”

Then you need to select the origin of your vampires, how far they have spread, how many there are in the world (or just in this particular conspiracy), how many different types there are (if any), whether they are truly dead or not, to what extent are they still human, whether or not there is a cure for them, what special abilities do they possess, and what kinds of weaknesses can the characters exploit?

The book gives the Director great options for each of these questions, and you can mix and match them into a huge number of possible combinations. Or, you can go with traditional mythological vampires and have all of that work done for you.

After that, the book delves into creating the vampire conspiracy. What are they up to? What kind of resources do they have? Who are their allies and who are their enemies? This conspiracy is what the players will attempt to unravel in the course of the game.

NBA was released in 2012, and it took me four years to “discover” this game. More and more, as scenarios and campaign packs were released for it, the buzz around NBA grew. And so I read a few reviews and some actual play accounts, and I reached a point where my curiosity got the better of me.

And now that I have the NBA core rules, and a few supplements, I cannot wait to run it.

This is obviously not a game for everyone. It needs players who are interested in covert operations and investigations. It needs players who want to act like actual spies (these people are not James Bond). The book has a chapter with great advice to players, like “When stuck, get more intel” and “Follow the money” and “Build your own network.” The book expands on these ideas and provides the players with ideas on how to succeed in their investigations against the vampire conspiracy.

The mechanics of the GUMSHOE System have gone through multiple iterations since 2007, and they support investigations without turning them into tedious, “ask a million questions” grindfests. The characters are able to quickly collect important clues that will point them in one or more directions, and it’s up to them to decide where to go next. And their activities will inevitably lead them into short, sudden, violent conflicts with their enemies, to add a healthy dose of excitement to the proceedings.

Jason Bourne versus a vampire conspiracy. If that sounds cool to you, then this is the game to check out.

For those interested in how a game might actually play out, there is a fantastic Actual Play thread on RPG.net by Mathew McFarland.

Have you played Night’s Black Agents or another GUMSHOE System game? What was your campaign like? If you’ve never played a GUMSHOE game, do know if any good fiction with a similar feel to NBA?

Tell us about it in the comments.