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.

 

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.

Espionage Games in Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

These systems included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do these systems do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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